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The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"3:10 To Yuma"
Bristling with heroes and anti-heroes, lawmen and outlaws, family men and ferocious killers, this gut-felt western demonstrates that the genre just can't ever be blown off -- especially when it's so full of character and morality issues. Based on the 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard, it was turned into a 1957 film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. This 2007 remake sets its commercial and artistic sights on a central character with screen command second to none, gunslinger Russell Crowe.
He's the infamous Ben Wade who leads a rag-tag group of highway thieves with as much strategic know-how in the taking down of an armored stage coach as with his legendary speed and accuracy with a six-shooter. While his men and, in particular, 2nd-in-command Charlie Prince, extol their leader's fame and fearfulness, they don't always understand everything that drives him. After divvying up their payroll plunder, having faced up to a gatling gun and the likes of bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), the thug bandit mind may well wonder why Wade remains in town for a highly dangerous tryst with a beautiful bartender (Vanessa Shaw). Does he want to get caught and hanged?
We get the idea that he's a man with a streak of honor when he returns the horses he confiscated from local rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and when he later pays Evans for the losses to his herd and related expenses incurred as a result of the holdup. It's clear he's not your typical range-rat sociopath with a complete indifference toward his fellow man.
Evans, who lost a leg in the Civil War and the hero worship of his elder son William (Logan Lerman), has been struggling to pay his debts to the railroad which owns his Arizona land and wants him off of it. He faces respect issues as well from wife Alice (stunning Gretchen Mol) who doesn't appreciate the unilateral decisions he makes. The consequences of his precarious situation get vivid when his barn is intentionally burned down in order to make him abandon his property. These rich guys don't play around. Evans isn't only in a fight against the injustices of a powerful force with no legal or moral scruples, but he sorely needs to earn the respect of his family.
When Ben Wade is captured and turned over to federal agent Glen Hollander (Lennie Loftin) for transport to the town of Contention where they can pick up a train to Yuma for the incarceration, trial and hanging, a few good men are needed to ensure successful passage. Evans negotiates a $200 payday for his services, seeing that bundle of money as his chance to secure his land and feed his family.
The trip is a gauntlet of difficulties and reversals, with Wade's gang tracking from afar, waiting for an opportunity to rescue their leader. A moment of relative calm comes when the team of lawmen and prisoner pause for dinner at Evans place, where Alice is surprised to find the outlaw very different than expected. The impression she makes on Wade, however, is the stronger one, affecting him even more profoundly.
Bullets fly, and situations change and, as they do, the outlaw and the rancher communicate as if they share a common interest which, in a backward way, they do. In fact, it's their face-to-face exchanges, and the influence each has on the other one in the final moments that distinguishes this western from just about any other.
Wade's and his captors' fortunes turn on a dime, as they find another common enemy in the tribal indians of the badlands and a railroad boss who has a private score to settle with Wade. Reaching the train station to put him on it remains always in doubt. Is it even possible to get that far? And, who will see to it that it does? I promise you this: there's more than one surprise in the final act, and it will give you a good look at what a Western can be.
Crowe couldn't convey the concept of a predatory animal in control while under restraint any more unsettlingly if he was cannibal Hannibal Lector. It often seems he remains on a leash more out of his own amusement than by the superiority of his captors. That isn't what the script has in mind, of course, but it is the kind of screen power that maintains a fine raw edge on the tensions. I can't recall more seething screen power since Brando at his age. The guy's plain dangerous and woe be to those who think they can master him.
If Crowe chose more of this kind of role and less family fare ala "Cinderella Man" and "A Good Year" it would seem a greater exploitation of the material he was born to play. Fortunately, he's working more than ever and his next four films will keep him on the right track (two detectives, one CIA agent and a sheriff -- watch these pages for all of them =plug=, =plug=).
Bale is Crowe's acting equal, however, grasping his character's role in the events like a maimed rattler that won't let go, and we love him for it! Don't sell this guy short. Adding cold determination to the intoxication of a never-before achieved success, Fonda's old bounty hunter is a study in single-minded purpose and ego-driven irascibility that locks away the key to better judgement.
Among the bad guys, Ben Foster is a standout as the gang's chief menace and homicidal maniac. We last saw him in his off-the-charts Jake Mazursky in "Alpha Dog." He's a bit more restrained here, which goes to show what holding some back can produce. This guy's a villain's villain who tends to light up the action with a thespianic flair gun.
Tightly and faithfully directed by James Mangold ("Walk the Line") from a finely disciplined screenplay by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt, I might only have wished that there could have been a greater involvement of Mol ("The Notorious Bettie Page"), whose luminous substance remains astonishing.
Marco Beltrami stepped in with a soundly generic score that features guitar motifs and evocations of the period. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael provides three-dimensional textures and a deep tonal range in the landscapes and the iconic settings.
This is riveting good work on all counts, with a long-lingering after-effect of pondering the elemental figures we imagine to have populated the old west during the time of its settlement. Moreover, this film does justice to the classic that preceded it, itself every bit as much a classic!
~~ Jules Brenner
Western Film Music (Soundtrack)
by Ennio Morricone
Western Film Music (Soundtrack)