In the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, director/co-screenwriter James Mangold managed to film a true story about an actual legend and make him seem like a flimsy fabrication. With 3:10 to Yuma, Mangold redeems himself by directing an impressively taut, traditional oater and getting fictional, genre-standard characters to come to life in a way that he was never able to do with the Man in Black.
Of course, it didn’t help matters that as a biopic, Walk the Line had to hang everything on Joaquin Phoenix’s lightweight Johnny Cash. Here, Mangold has a wealth of solid, seasoned actors to draw upon and, most importantly, the gravitas of a tale penned by the great Elmore Leonard.
The first incarnation of Yuma (which screenwriter Halsted Welles adapted from Leonard’s 1953 short story of the same name) came out in 1957, featuring Glenn Ford as Ben Wade, the congenial but murderous villain, and co-starring Van Heflin as Dan Evans, the beleaguered rancher with a wooden leg who volunteers to get Wade onto the train headed for the Yuma prison when no one else wants to. For the remake, screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas stayed so close to Welles’s original script that he’s given a co-writing credit, despite the fact he hasn’t written a word since he penned a TV episode of Doctors’ Hospital back in 1976 and, according to the Writers Guild, is no longer alive. Brandt, Haas and Mangold were determined to improve on the original without messing up what was good about it, and that’s one of the main reasons this film is a winner.
The other reason lies with Yuma‘s potent, well-directed cast.
Portraying a tough guy in a Western is a rite of passage for a film actor, and Russell Crowe proves up to the task of playing Wade — although I have to say it took a bit of convincing for me. With his darkly cherubic face and grizzled charm, it’s initially hard to believe him as a man capable of pure evil, which is, of course, a vital component in making this film work. Still, Crowe succeeds in tricking the audience into underestimating him, thus making his actions all the more convincing and unexpected.
Christian Bale is excellent in the role of Evans, from the harrowing opening scene (in which his creditors burn his barn to the ground) to the heroic shoot-’em-up finale. Throughout it all, he exudes a doleful intensity that never subsides. Bale, whose dedication and range as an actor is second to none, seems born to do Westerns. He comes off as compelling, sympathetic and tough as he fights to hold his family together, and to keep his gun-slinging 14-year-old son, William (Logan Lerman), from being sucked into Wade’s outlaw world.
The supporting characters are surprisingly compelling as well. Gretchen Mol (last seen spiritedly parodying herself and dating Jesus Christ in The Ten), puts on her game face here as Evans’s unhappy wife, Alice. It’s a bit of a stock part, but she handles it with steely determination. Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wade’s psychopathic, somewhat fey henchman, comes close to stealing the movie with his wild-eyed look and weirdly understated malevolence. Also thriving in a small role is Peter Fonda, looking ancient as Byron McElroy, the tough-assed old security guard who takes a shot to the chest defending the payroll coach that Wade robs at the beginning of the film. "It’s not the first time I’ve been shot," McElroy grumbles, waving away a couple of bystanders trying to help. Then he lies there, silent and stoic, while the doctor reaches into his bleeding chest and yanks out the bullet; not long after that, he’s on his feet again, hot on Wade’s trail.
Westerns are like the blues — a simple, standard narrative structure backed up with a strong sense of conviction. As long as the form is followed, fans will be satisfied. But Leonard is a storyteller of subtle dimensions, and with a story that cleverly plays on our sensibilities of what’s right and wrong, Yuma proves to be a more complex creation than the average genre Western. For example, even though Wade is unequivocally a killer and a criminal, in some ways, he still manages to come off as more human than the lawmen who are trying to punish him.
Of course, there’s nothing radically different about any of this, but newness and innovation are beside the point here. While Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack glistens, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography effectively renders both the beauty of the land and the ugliness of its denizens, presenting a picture far more technically impressive than any of the films Yuma can claim as its ancestors. But the dazzle never detracts from the story, and the focus remains squarely on the nuts and bolts of classic Hollywood filmmaking. While Yuma offers plenty of vivid scenes of gun battles and gruesome bloodletting, it’s always the human drama that takes center stage.
3:10 TO YUMA
RATED | R
OPENS | FRIDAY, 9.7.07