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Filmkritik: Back to the Badlands

Filmkritik: Back to the Badlands

6 Min.
March 16, 2011

January/February 2008 -- 3:10 to Yuma. Starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Vinessa Shaw, Alan Tudyk, Luce Rains, and Gretchen Mol. Music by Marco Beltrami. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, A.S.C.  Production design by Andrew Menzies. Costume design by Arianne Phillips. Edited by Michael McCusker, A.C.E. Screenplay by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Directed by James Mangold.

(Lionsgate/Relativity Media/Treeline Films, 2007, color, 117 minutes. MPAA rating: R.)

I hate remakes. They are, mostly, an insult to filmgoers. Their implicit justification is either “audiences won’t go for old movies that were printed in black-and-white” or “people hate reading subtitles.” But, those were your grandfather’s remakes. These days, Hollywood is redoing movies that were originally in English, in widescreen and color, and even in surround stereo—as Tim Burton (otherwise an inventive director) did so horribly in his remake of Planet of the Apes.

Recently, I balked at reviewing two ridiculous retreadings of iconic movies. Death Sentence ­neutered Wendell Mayes’s screenplay from the 1974 classic Death Wish by turning definitive vigilante Charles Bronson into . . . well, into Kevin Bacon. I couldn’t sit all the way through the (badly) animated version of The Ten Commandments,which traded in Charlton Heston for “the voice talents” of Christian Slater. I know God is supposed to be Jewish (though to me, he’s Irish Catholic), but I had a hard time buying the former Mr. Barbra Streisand, Elliott Gould, as the voice of the Almighty. What, Brad Garrett wasn’t available?

Given this aversion, I should have hated director James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 B-Western 3:10 to Yuma, which starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Mangold’s previous film, 2005’s Walk the Line, was a remake (of sorts) of the 2004 biopic Ray: The plotting, the theme of the self-destructive genius musician, the backwater juke joints, the nostalgic use of neon lighting, and the sound editing were almost identical to Taylor Hackford’s far more convincing effort. If Mangold had cast Jamie Foxx instead of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role as Johnny Cash, I would not have been able to tell the difference between the two.

But, as the saying goes, a director is only as good as his last picture. Judging from this long-overdue entry in the Western genre, Mangold is on his way to becoming one of the greats. A long time has passed since I saw a captivating big-screen Western. (I did see a movie last year about a couple sheepherders getting in touch with their feelings—and eventually, each other—but I don’t think that exactly qualifies as a “Western.”)

What makes this new version of 3:10 to Yuma work is its faithfulness to Halsted Welles’s original screenplay, based on a pulp magazine short story by then little-known Elmore Leonard. Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale, more than filling Van Heflin’s boots) is hard-pressed to hold onto the small Arizona ranch to which he trekked westward from New England in order to start a new life for his family. He lost his leg during the Civil War while serving as a sharpshooter in the Massachusetts State Militia. He’s now about to lose his ranch, as his landlord (Lennie Loftin) demands he pay up or move off the land to make room for the new railroad. “Sometimes a man has to be big enough to see how small he is,” he mocks Evans.

Dan’s troubles only pile up higher when, while herding cattle with his sons, he runs across notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, doing justice to one of Glenn Ford’s few villain roles). Wade and his gang just ambushed a heavily guarded stagecoach outside the small town of Bisbee; they drove Dan’s herd into the path of the stagecoach to set up the robbery.

Dan follows Wade into town to settle accounts for the two head of cattle that died in the crossfire during the robbery. He confronts Wade face-to-face across a bar in the town saloon. But seeing that Dan has come not for revenge but for recompense, Wade slides a fistful of silver dollars across the bar to pay him for his troubles. This tense scene holds the key to the clash of character between the two men: Dan Evans, forthright and obstinate, embodies the Western archetype of a man of few words; Ben Wade is an oily charmer who likes to ask rhetorical questions first and shoot later.

When the town marshal captures Wade, Dan, facing imminent foreclosure, leaps at the offer of a $200 bounty to deliver the outlaw eighty miles to the station in Contention and to put him on a train bound for the federal prison at Yuma. Dan’s wife (Gretchen Mol, who’s so stunning that makeup detracts from her natural beauty) doesn’t think it’s worth it for her husband to risk his life just to get the ranch out of hock. Worse, his son William (Logan Lerman) believes him to be a coward who backs down from a fight.

This plot element was only hinted at in the original, a straightforward story with a beginning and an end. Mangold’s version gives the story a satisfying middle, which allows the pressure and characterizations to build. While there was too much backstory in decoding the principals’ motives, I nonetheless admired the plot device of escorting Wade across dangerous Apache territory. As he picked off the marshal’s posse one by one to try to avoid capture, the raw brutality lurking underneath Wade’s polished veneer was revealed. Now, pursuing Wade’s captors in order to free him is his right-hand man, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, chewing up the gorgeous New Mexican scenery).

I can’t think of an actor capable of tying Russell Crowe’s silver tongue as convincingly as Christian Bale.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to see many long stretches of that scenery in Phedon Papamichael’s otherwise sterling camerawork: The filming relies on too many close-ups and medium shots. But a Western is not just another costume drama. Directors like John Ford and Anthony Mann emphasized their cowboy heroes’ physical vulnerability by juxtaposing them against vast stretches of nothingness. As much as the violent men who filled the screen, the desolate and unforgiving badlands were barriers to be overcome. These thematic and visual devices are part of what define the Western’s distinctive appeal. It would be hard to imagine The Searchers without John Wayne riding past the towering rock formations of Monument Valley. And in director Delmer Daves’s original 3:10 to Yuma, Dan Evans’s difficult mission of getting his prisoner to the station on time was intensified by vast stretches of cloudless skies and sparsely-populated frontier towns that gave him no respite from isolation.

Fortunately, the actors rise to the challenge of having mainly to overcome each other rather than the harsh landscape. I’m not usually a fan of Russell Crowe’s acting, but he delivers a truly virtuoso performance as the loquacious outlaw. Glenn Ford was smooth in the original, but Crowe’s performance is more akin to one of Burt Lancaster’s slick leads.

Ben Wade turns on the charm as Dan Evans finds himself alone and outnumbered, the clock ticking ever closer to the fateful hour. The outlaw tries to entice Dan to let him go, with promises of riches. But Dan is an incorruptible, silent loner who can’t be bought. Getting an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work—and seeing the job through—is what drives him. He interrupts Wade’s manipulative soliloquy. “You know what,” he says coolly, “Do me a favor. Don’t talk to me for a while.”

I can’t think of an actor capable of tying Russell Crowe’s silver tongue as convincingly as Christian Bale was able to do in this scene. He doesn’t bring Dan Evans to life either by underplaying or by going over the top. Like the rugged Western heroes of yesterday—John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Lee Van Cleef—he just plays it straight, bringing to this role the same level of quiet intensity that he did as downed Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn.

Regrettably, “playing it straight” isn’t very fascinating to Dan’s son William, who—lured by reading adventure stories and the gunplay they romanticize—sneaks off the ranch at night and winds up riding shotgun alongside his father. Despite rescuing the old man and his fellow bounty hunters from one of Wade’s ruses, William takes a shine to the bandit’s offhand bravado.

Oddly, Dan gets some help from Wade in setting his boy on the right path. When William falls for Wade’s pretensions of honor, seeing “some good” in the scoundrel, Wade sets him straight: “Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t rotten as hell.”

Delivering his man to the station on time thus becomes more than just a personal mission for Dan Evans. Knowing he may never make it alive, he realizes it’s perhaps also his last opportunity to teach his son the meaning of personal integrity, of standing by one’s word.

Will he make it? To find out, you’ve got to see it yourself, right through the final grueling shootout.

Peter Fonda as grizzled Pinkerton agent McElroy and Dallas Roberts as a dandified railroad official deliver a pair of memorable supporting performances. The movie’s brilliant visuals are backed up by Marco Beltrami’s electrifying soundtrack, which borrows its orchestration from Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable “Spaghetti Western” scores.

3:10 to Yuma is the most viscerally gratifying Western I’ve watched since George Cosmatos’s 1993 film Tombstone. As much as I hate remakes, here’s one I enjoyed through and through. James Mangold’s proficient direction breathes new life into a forgotten movie. Although he came close to veering into pastiche by working in elements from classics such as High Noon and Shane,Mangold has crafted a Western that once again sets the screen on fire.

Robert L. Jones
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Robert L. Jones
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