Wednesday, September 12, 2007

3:10 TO YUMA

James Mangold's 3:10 TO YUMA ****

Writer/director James Mangold is a very interesting filmmaker. His first film, the quiet drama HEAVY, showcased Liv Tyler at the beginning of her career, and she's never been better on screen than she was in that little film. Mangold then went and made the extremely underrated police mystery COPLAND, which is still his best film. After that came the interesting but flawed GIRL, INTERRUPTED, the schmaltzy chick-flick KATE & LEOPOLD, the stylish and crafty thriller IDENTITY, and last year’s terrific biopic WALK THE LINE. Mangold has worked in a variety of genres and clearly is not interested in repeating himself. Tackling a Western seemed about as unlikely a choice of a project for him, especially considering that the genre has long been considered dead. True, the modest theatrical success of Kevin Costner's excellent OPEN RANGE suggests that there is an audience, however limited, for a big screen Western. It's interesting to note that the Western thrives on the small screen; David Milch’s brilliant series DEADWOOD, the entertaining min-series INTO THE WEST and BROKEN TRAIL, and a plethora of TV movies like BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE have all found success. It seems that audiences prefer their tales of the old West in the comfort of their own homes. In any event, Mangold's thrilling and wholly satisfying action flick 3:10 TO YUMA once again shows how durable the American Western can be.

Anchored by two great performances from Russell Crowe (reminding everyone in the audience how incredible of an actor he is) and Christian Bale (yet another intense bit of thesping from this tireless actor), the film is a gun-happy and bloody oater with some fantastic horse chases and shootouts. The setup is simple: Crowe's Ben Wade is a legendary and feared gunslinger who kills whenever it makes sense for him to kill. Bale's Dan Evans is a down-on-his-luck rancher with a family to support and bills to pay. When Wade rides through town with his posse and gets captured by local law enforcement, Evans accepts a paid invitation to help transport the outlaw to the train station for him to catch the 3:10 to Yuma, where a prison cell awaits. Along the way, Wade's crew, led by vicious psychopath and right-hand-man Charlie Prince (the riveting Ben Foster who steals just about every scene he appears in), tries to bust Crowe out of capture. Throw in an extended cameo from a grizzled Peter Fonda and an amusing appearance by Luke Wilson and you've got a great foundation.

But it's the script by Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, which is based on the original 1957 film, which constantly surprises. In between the numerous shoot outs, chases, and manly showdowns, there are some genuinely funny lines of dialogue, an ironic/cynical flavor to the writing, and a gritty, lived-in quality to the surroundings that elevates the film above other period actioners. On more than one occasion, I was reminded of the nastiness of the late, great HBO show DEADWOOD. While that show was a total masterwork of sustained storytelling and floral, oblique dialogue, 3:10 TO YUMA channels the black heart of DEADWOOD while making a name of its own in the lexicon of Western mythology. Its man vs. man in YUMA, as Crowe and Bale's characters bond in a complex and smart way. Both men operate by a particular code, and both hold a certain type of respect for each other for different reasons (I dare not spoil), and the decisions they make are smart and believable. Mangold and his gifted cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also shot WALK THE LINE, go for grit and muck and dirt and blood. Gone are the grand sunsets and sunrises and the John Ford style mannerisms that have populated the genre for years. This is a mean, nasty, darker Western, one that feels very contemporary in many ways. The handheld shooting style puts the audience in the middle of all the gun fights, especially the climactic battle that ties up the story. It's a tight, fast two hours with very little fat on its bones so people looking for an exciting, fast-paced blast won't be disappointed.

But it's Crowe who owns the film, exuding a menacing warmth and casual cruelty. I forget how awesome of a leading man he is, and I don't know if there are any other major actors who could pull off roles like this one and the roles he had in MASTER & COMMANDER and GLADIATOR. We need stronger, leading men actors that exude cinematic machismo in our action films. I could care less how many phones that Crowe throws at hotel long as he continues to dazzle in all of his performances, that's all I care about. Bring on Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, which finds Crowe paired for the first time with Denzel Washington. Now that should be something.

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