Thursday, April 9, 2009

"3:10 to Yuma" (2007, James Mangold)

3:10 TO YUMA, James Mangold’s remake of Delmer Daves’ 1957 movie of the same title, differs from its predecessor in many ways. There are some major changes, as well as some very small ones. The latter include lack of punctuality: in Mangold’s version the eponymous train doesn’t arrive on time. “I guess it’s running a little late”, says the baffled station agent. Well, so does the movie, adds the baffled yours truly. The action at any given point seems to be a few scenes behind what we already know will happen. In terms of pure narrative economy, Daves’ work was a fine example of small-scale story played up to the maximum of suspense. The new 3:10 TO YUMA reverses those proportions. It’s a big scale Western with very little suspense.

Mangold has a head-start, though, and a big one: he doesn’t use the annoying theme song, which in Daves’ movie was sung (by Frankie Lane), hummed, whistled, and then sung some more – to the point when you couldn’t get the preposterous rhymes out of your head (“There’s a legend, and there’s a rumah / When you take the 3:10 to Yumah…”). Apart from that, the new version boasts two brilliant casting choices: Christian Bale in what used to be Van Heflin’s role, and Russell Crowe in Glenn Ford’s.

The basic outline of the plot remains the same. The outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) is caught in a small town of Bisbee, while his gang remains on the loose. He has to be transported to the town of Contention, to take the eponymous train to Yuma. Now, escorting him there is not an easy task, and it takes courage (or determination) to join the posse – and thus to become a target for Wade’s fellows. Dan Evans (Bale) does it for the money – a long draught has all but ruined him and his family’s farm. The $200 he was promised may be able to save them.

The main problem of the new movie is that Mangold decided to pack it with large-scale action sequences. This approach distracts him from focusing on actors’ performances, and sets the new YUMA… way behind its modest but effective predecessor. It’s not that Crowe and Bale are lesser actors then Ford and Heflin, but rather that Daves gave Ford and Heflin a better treatment. He let himself to be intimate with their movement and their faces in a much more relaxed, and yet shrewder, manner than Mangold. The new performances are squeezed in between big action sequences that are so overblown, that they lack any suspense. They’re loud, they’re well shot and cut, but they hardly serve any purpose in terms of the narrative. Worse, they keep the narrative from its free-flowing and steady development. The movie doesn’t grow, it jolts. This is a Western for our times; an ADD Western.

Consider this little detail: when the “old” Ben Wade was robbing the stagecoach in the first sequence of the movie and Dan was watching him from the distance, they both seemed weary. Their faces added to this, especially Van Heflin’s: all heavy eyelids and wrinkles. Wade was a professional, but you could get the sense that he’s just going through the motions – his heart wasn’t in his job, at least not any more. Heflin’s non-reaction was of the same vain. He’s seen it all, he didn’t want to get shot. Indeed those subtleties gave Dan’s and Ben’s relation such great dynamics: they were both weary, but both had something to cling to – a gang, a family. As it turned out each felt some jealousy for the other, and it was played beautifully.

In the new movie, the opening hold-up sequence is so preoccupied with pyrotechnics that we don’t get any subtleties at all. There’s a machine gun, a horse is blown up to pieces as if it were a car in a DIE HARD movie, the stagecoach collapses, flips, catches on fire. When the dust finally settles, Crowe says to the owner, “It would probably be cheaper if you just let me rob the damn thing”. One couldn’t agree more! But it wasn’t the owner who didn’t allow it to happen. It was Mangold and his “brave-new-Western” idea.

Notwithstanding all of this, one should still applaud what’s good in the movie, namely its revisionist approach towards some crucial Western myths. Crowe’s Wade, unlike Ford’s, is deeply disillusioned with his own culture – he sees its contradictions. Bible as a corner stone, racism as a way of living: Wade points this paradox out explicitly and bitterly (“Guess you thought Jesus won’t mind killing Indian children, huh?”). There are many powerful moments, and it’s too bad Mangold doesn’t fully trust his material. The ending, though, redeems the movie and makes the whole thing worthwhile: it’s violent, raw, visceral, and feels right. In the very last 5 minutes, 3:10 to Yuma becomes THE DEPARTED set in the American West. It’s a very uneven movie, but there is enough energy left in it to forgive its weaknesses.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really good post - clear, thoughtful, substantiated; much better than the one on The Tingler.