by Steven Boone
The first big action scene in James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma remake is a spectacular, old-fashioned stage coach chase and robbery--old-fashioned, that is, until the filmmakers bust out the futuristic-looking, coach-mounted Gatling gun and the exploding horse. Yo, it's Yuma: Reloaded!
When the smoke clears, dapper villain Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his psychopathic toady, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), methodically execute the survivors, all but twirling their mustaches as they deliver cruel kiss-off speeches. You know, stuff like, "Well, if it isn't my old friend [so-and-so]. Such a pity I must kill you now. It reminds me of that time many years ago..." Why do movie bad guys get bouts of logorrhea just when they're fixing to kill somebody? Looks like Mangold doesn't care. He clearly loves every last old-time Western trope and was determined to get them all into this one silly/serious, sprawling/unimaginative cowboy flick. Alongside this fanboy preoccupation, the film also squeezes in some post-Unforgiven revisionism. Strange brew.
If you caught the film's theatrical trailer, you've basically seen the whole show. Christian Bale is Dan Evans, a dirt poor rancher who volunteers to escort Wade, a murderous outlaw, to a frontier town where at 3:10PM a prison train will take him to justice. Along the way, Wade's robber gang, Dan's ornery son William (Logan Lerman), Keystone cop Pinkertons, Injun snipers and thuggish railroad workers complicate the journey. William tags along because his admiration for Wade and disdain for peaceable Dad provide the film with its main oedipal thrust. Wade is simply more charismatic and powerful than Evans. The latter signs on for this mission because he's desperate for cash in a season of drought, but also to prove (to himself as much as anyone) that upholding the law, toeing the line and doing unto others are not for suckers.
Screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (working from the original film's Halstead Welles adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story) add provocative new wrinkles to the premise by making Wade a sort of progressive antihero: He talks to women (including Dan's wife (Gretchen Mol)) with sensitivity and respect for their intelligence; he enchants William with literate, worldly accounts of his adventures in the big cities. And he can draw nudes, too. (At one point I expected to see a copy of The Village Voice tucked in his ammo belt.) Wade constantly points out that his captors, representatives of the state and big business, are really gunning for him because of the property he's stolen or destroyed over the years, not "all the lives I've taken." He also mentions all the slaughter his nemesis and chief escort, the bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) has presided over in his time. These facts trouble Dan's sense of mission, since he's no friend of the bosses and barons:In the film's first scene, hired thugs burn down his barn to remind him of his debt to the landowner. Later, Wade kills one of these goons, who has joined the “Yuma” party as an armed guard. As in the Delmer Daves original, Dan and Wade find themselves awkwardly simpatico even as their personal codes line up for a direct collision.
Juicy stuff, so why doesn't it work so well here? Well, let's go back to that exploding horse. The horse blows up because a Pinkerton in the speeding stagecoach shoots her saddlebag loaded with dynamite, blasting her and her evil rider sky high. Yee haw. 3:10 to Yuma is chock full of moments like this, inducements to cheer some ridiculous physical feat for a 2007 audience calibrated to Hostel sequels and rollerblading Deceptagons. The subtle, psychologically intense drama Mangold tries to build in between the set pieces suffers in this cartoon climate.
Sometimes, Mangold's weakness for mannered, massively telegraphed performances (going back to his debut, Heavy, and some of the this-is-me-being-crazy turns in Girl, Interrupted) is the problem. As played by willowy pretty boy Lerman, Evan's son seems more interested in offering himself sexually to Wade than filling his shoes. Foster, who tried way too hard to embody a kung fu adept crackhead in the flick Alpha Dog, bursts even more blood vessels here as Wade's ace psycho. The wiry actor struts imperiously, huffs and tries to project menace the way Michael Jackson attempted not to shit himself facing off with Wesley Snipes in Bad. Worst of all: In a feat of straight-up miscasting, perennial sweetie-pie Luke Wilson cameos as a thug with brown teeth and a permanent sneer.
The real standout stars of this Yuma are not Bale or Crowe, who are both, predictably, great-ish in their tailored roles, but production designer Andrew Menzies, costumer Arianne Philips, cinematographer Phedon Papamichel (providing grand and glorious anamorphic lens flares as visual chorus) and actor Peter Fonda. Under Mangold's direction, Menzies, Philips and Papamichel deliver a lived-in Western canvas worthy of prime Peckinpah, Siegel or Eastwood, and Fonda inhabits this world more solidly than the horses, even the exploding one.
[PS: Check out Ryland's review over at The House Next Door.]