Sunday, October 5, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''3:10 TO YUMA'' (2007)

"Walk the Line" director James Mangold's noisy, violent, bullet-riddled remake of the classic 1957 Glenn Ford western "3:10 to Yuma" won't spur a revival of western movies. If you've seen the Columbia Pictures version with Van Heflin as the desperate, drought-stricken rancher who keeps Glenn Ford at gunpoint and manages to get him to the train on time, you'll see why even the best intended remakes are doomed to failure. Naturally, Mangold and his writers have punched up the action with gratuitous gunplay galore. A sturdy cast has the acting credentials to pull it off, but the characters that they play are overwritten. We're supposed to cry for the misguided villain because his parents abandoned him as a youngster. Meanwhile, the crippled hero worries about everything, especially that his son no longer worships him. Worse, the gloomy ending for the new "3:10 to Yuma" (** out of ****) will disillusion anybody who prefers to feel good at fade-out. Perhaps the DVD will contain a suitable alternate ending. Anything resembling subtlety and suspense is absent from this pretentious western, too. The only reason to watch "3:10 to Yuma" is to brag that you've seen a big-screen western. As a remake, "3:10 to Yuma" needs to be put out of our misery. As a western in general, "3:10 to Yuma" scrounges few of the sterling qualities that distinguished sagebrushers like "Silverado," "Unforgiven," "Tombstone," and "Open Range."

The people that produced "3:10 to Yuma" fix up a classic that needed no alterations. A small-time cattle rancher at the mercy of inclement weather struggles to preserve his herd despite a shortage of water. Mangold and his writers up the ante so that heroic Dan Evans (Christian Bale of "Batman Begins") must not only contend with an evil landlord who wants his property because the railroad will cross it but also with the inhospitable weather that is killing his cattle. This landlord subplot—not in the original—resembles on a small scale the Sergio Leone classic "Once Upon a Time in the West" about a widow with property that refuses to sell out to the railroad. Meanwhile, infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe of "The Quick and the Dead") wages a war against the Butterfield Railroad. He has robbed their payroll stages over twenty times when he isn't sketching pictures of birds and naked babes.

As the film unfolds, the Wade gang waylay a Butterfield stagecoach equipped with a Gatlin gun. A Gatlin gun amounted to the nineteenth century equivalent of an Uzi. Historically, a Gatlin gun could deliver up to 600 rounds a minute. Although the good guys possess superior firepower, they don't have the expertise with the gun to vanquish the enemy. Clearly, Mangold borrowed this convention from big dumb action movies where nobody but a hero can hit anything with a machine gun. In the Glenn Ford version, the Wade gang held-up a stagecoach, and the villain shot only one man, the stagecoach driver after he took one of the Wade gang hostage. Nonetheless, in this remake, the entire scene recycles the gimmick from the John Wayne western "The War Wagon" where an steel-plated wagon with a Gatlin gun in a turret transported the gold shipments. Unfortunately, the "Yuma" stagecoach doesn't boast a turret to house its rapid fire weapon. When his army of gunslingers cannot stop the stagecoach after basically killing everybody on board, Wade steps in and stampedes a herd of cattle to halt the coach. As it turns out, the cattle belong to our hero.

After the robbery, Wade and his gang ride into town. Later, they split up, but Wade malingers in the local saloon to sketch a saloon girl, Emmy Nelson (Vinessa Shaw), in the nude. When the posse returns to town, they get the drop on Wade with Dan's help. Penniless Dan jumps at the chance to escort the outlaw to Contention for the prison train to Yuma. The pay outweighs the risks, so Dan assists the authorities. Along the way, Wade offers our hero a bribe for his freedom, but Dan Evans proves incorruptible. The two suffer through an agonizing wait for the train in an upstairs hotel room while Wade's gang assembles outside with everything that they have to rescue their boss.

Mangold, who helmed "Copland" with Sylvester Stallone and "Identity" with John Cusack," is no slouch as a director. However, he clutters up a simple story with far too much exposition, additional characters, and unwarranted violence. "3:10 to Yuma" dangerously borders on burlesque with its high body count. They could have renamed it "The Thick Red Line." The glut of violence dilutes what little moral ambiguity survived from the first film. Whereas the Glenn Ford original was a polished, spartan effort brimming with intensity to spare, Mangold's version of "3:10 to Yuma" leaves little to the imagination. Of course, today's audiences abhor westerns, so Mangold exaggerated the violence to compensate for the harsh realism. The hero displays only a trace of humanity; instead, he emerges as a tragic figure of epic proportions, hounded by his own upstart 14-year old son who refuses to obey his father at every turn. Make no mistake; Christian Bale gives it everything that he has in a bravura performance. Sadly, his character is so grim that you cringe at the sight of him rather than sympathize about his plight. Ben Foster excels as trigger-happy Charlie Prince, Wade's second-in-command, who kills without a qualm. Russell Crowe brings his hulking physical presence to bear, but he generates none of the charisma that Glenn Ford conjured up to win audience sympathy. Crowe comes off as a tactless lout, an absurd figure who does what nobody would do at the end. While it pales by comparison with the Glenn Ford original, "3:10 to Yuma" fares somewhat better as a western in general.

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