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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

‘3:10 to Yuma’ Gets Derailed By Epic Ambitions

This review comes closer to Elmore’s view of “3:10 to Yuma.”


By JOE MORGENSTERN

 

‘3:10 to Yuma’ Gets ?Derailed By Epic Ambitions
Crowe’s Vivid Villain;
September 7, 2007; Page W1

The first thing to be said about James Mangold’s remake of “3:10 To Yuma” is that it’s a thoroughly modern showcase for fine actors: Russell Crowe as the outlaw Ben Wade, a bad guy with a tinge, or a twinge, of good; Christian Bale as the rancher Dan Evans, a forlorn guy who finds his inner hero; Gretchen Mol, Dallas Roberts, Peter Fonda as a bounty hunter and the glint-eyed, scene-thieving Ben Foster as Wade’s henchman. Still, the modernization has bestowed mixed blessings. The basic plot survives intact, and intriguing as ever. The picture looks great: Phedon Papamichael’s elegant color cinematography has replaced Charles Lawton Jr.‘s elegant black-and-white cinematography. And the action sequences are impressive, for a while. Yet the whole enterprise is seriously out of scale. What began half a century ago as a small, taut Western has become an extended, self-serious and, in the end, ludicrously distended spectacle that seems to bring the Yuma train to the station 20 minutes late.

The starting point of the plot is a conflict of interests that turns into a clash of values. After the infamous Wade is captured by lawmen, Evans, who is broke and about to lose his ranch, volunteers for a few hundred dollars to deliver the outlaw to a train that will take him to trial. Wade’s interest is in escaping, of course, or buying his escape. Evans, anything but an idealist, is interested only in the reward. The question is whether the rancher can be bought, but it’s not the only question in a film, originally based on a story by Elmore Leonard, that explores issues of morality and integrity. Does every man have his price, as Wade believes, or can something more govern human behavior? (Hint: Keep an eye out for something more.)

Russell Crowe, looking cheerfully dissolute with a smirk beneath an obligatory black hat, keeps all eyes riveted on him, even when the mind games Ben Wade plays with his captor wear thin. Wade is a villain, by his own admission—indeed, by his own insistence—but a complex, seductive one who quotes the Bible and does an admirable pencil sketch of a woman he admires. Christian Bale, a specialist in mutedness, risks painting Dan Evans as a dislikable weasel as well as a mercenary, but there’s ample room for the character’s growth, and the actor fills it. (Now and then, though, both men grow so muted that they seem to be trying to outminimalize one another.)

The director, Mr. Mangold, has a gift for working with actors. He displayed it in “Walk the Line,” and he uses it here to elicit vivid performances from his supporting cast as well as his stars. (I found Peter Fonda’s presence particularly moving, and, at the other end of the chronological scale, I liked Logan Lerman’s performance as the rancher’s young son.) But the film gets to be cluttered with picturesque characters and their posturings—a plethora of poses, scowls and leers. And one can debate the ambiguities of the ending—which substantially resembles the original—but the febrile and semicoherent action climax that precedes it leaves logic in the dust. Instead of taking on seven gunmen, as in the original, the movie’s newly minted man of honor must now shoot his way through what amounts to a whole town.

That’s not to enshrine the 1957 version, which was directed by Delmer Daves, as a masterpiece that contemporary Hollywood vandals have defaced. And clearly there’s no going back to a time when a small, taut feature was enough to bring an audience to a theater. In our own time, though, when movies must compete with many media and producers want their features to be big events, it’s worth thinking about what made the original noteworthy. The performances, to be sure—Glenn Ford and Van Heflin were superb—and the classic theme of a single man of probity carrying the day. But the strengths of the first “3:10 To Yuma” were enhanced by its proportionality—an intimate story told in 92 minutes. The story is no bigger in the new version, which goes on for 117 minutes. And it’s certainly not better

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