Wednesday, May 12, 2010

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Let's be honest, Westerns don't appeal to everyone.  The action is usually bunched together in the beginning (sometimes) and ending (always) of the film.  John Wayne made about two hundred Westerns, and he always plays himself...and sometimes, he isn't even convincing in that.  The golden age of Westerns ended in the 1960s and many have aged poorly.  With the improved special effects in modern movies, the Western action scenes often looks tame by comparison.

3:10 to Yuma, however, doesn't suffer from any of these problems.  The action is sprinkled throughout the entire film, so there is rarely more than ten minutes that pass without someone being attacked or killed.  Since the action is spread so evenly throughout the film, this is probably the most consistently action-packed Western I have ever seen.  No one in the cast attempts to channel John Wayne; this movie follows the post-Western attitude of Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch by having a movie with bad men as main characters and no shining hero in the bunch.  There isn't any blatant racism in the script and women are treated in a manner more in line with today's tastes; Gretchen Mol quietly controls her home and Vinessa Shaw...well, okay, she's treated as an object.  But that's a pretty good percentage for a Western!  The gunplay is fast and frequent throughout the movie, and they even figured out a way to include an explosion.

While Russell Crowe's character, Ben Wade, is what you will remember from this movie, the main character is actually Dan Evans (Christian Bale).  Evans is an ordinary guy that can't get a break.  He lost his foot in the Civil War, his Arizona farm needs water and is the middle of a drought (really?  In Arizona?), he is hopelessly in debt and will lose his farm within weeks, he has a young boy that needs expensive medicine, and his older son has no respect for a father that just lets it all happen.  On the bright side, he's married to Gretchen Mol.  Evans finally gets a break when he helps a posse capture the infamous robber/murderer Ben Wade.  Catching a criminal is just the first step in bringing him to justice, though, especially in the Old West.  Since the towns are few and far between, with only a few having courthouses or prisons, that means that Wade has to be escorted to prison, or in this case, to a train that will take him to prison.  Evans joins the posse for a hefty fee.  The trip is several days long, but the real danger begins when Wade's loyal sociopathic right hand man, Charlie (Ben Foster), learns that Wade has been captured.  Ultimately, all that stands between Wade and freedom is Dan Evans.  And all that stands between Evans and death is his determination to bring in Ben Wade.

If this film was just about Christian Bale's character, it would be a depressing psychological piece on a stubborn man that has reached his breaking point.  It might be good, but not in the hands of director James Mangold.  Mangold is the kind of director that does a pretty good job with a movie's overall story, but he doesn't have a noticeable impact on his actors; good actors deliver good performances, while bad actors do not.  Luckily, this story has Russell Crowe's character to balance the moroseness of Bale.  Crowe turns in a performance that is both charming and filled with a sense of imminent danger.  For most of the movie, Crowe does not shoot a gun, but there is always the promise of violence when he is in a scene.  While the plot throws a lot of supporting characters into the mix, the story basically boils down to these two men.  As evil as Ben Wade clearly is, both the audience and Dan Evans have a hard time not warming to him.  For his part, Wade enjoys the company of Evans, but keeps reminding Evans that he can and will kill him, just the same.  For most of the film, the audience (and Ben Wade) assume that Evans is going through all this trouble in the hopes of a big payday, but it is really a matter of pride for a man with nothing else to be proud of.

There are a lot of supporting characters in this movie.  Most function as cannon fodder, but a few stick out.  Peter Fonda plays a Pinkerton agent that has a long history of chasing Ben Wade.  The character is more of a hired goon than a hero, but Fonda gives him depth.  Most of the other actors and characters just serve their purpose.  Alan Tudyk is servicable as a jumpy veterinarian that is out of his element.  Logan Lerman is a little obnoxious as the son of Dan Evans, but his character spends half of the film with a my-dad-is-SO-lame attitude, so it's probably not his fault.  Luke Wilson makes a cameo as a guy with bad teeth.  Dallas Roberts is fine as a cowardly railroad man and Kevin Durand is good as the same jerk he plays in every movie.  Ben Foster, though, turns in a great performance as Wade's loyal second-in-command.  Foster usually chooses supporting roles that require him to be over the top, but they're always fun to watch.  Here, he gets to have another weird accent, some odd mannerisms, and a frequently used fast draw.  The reason he is good here is that he is able to balance a clear affection for Wade with a complete disregard for the lives of everyone else.  When done right, sociopaths can be fun to watch.

This is a remake of a 1957 classic of the same name.  The original stays truer to Elmore Leonard's original short story, but this update did a good job.  The story's core is still Wade and Evans spending time together, waiting for the titular train to arrive.  The primary difference is that this movie spreads the action (and their interaction) out over a greater physical distance.  That was a smart move, because so many remakes fail when they try to imitate what made the original great.  This film manages to stand on its own, even if it does so by making Crowe's and Foster's characters, the meanest in the movie, into the most fun to watch.

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