This review took an extra week to complete because Judge Clark Douglas mistakenly caught the 3:12 to Albuquerque.
Our review of 3:10 to Yuma (1957) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published May 20th, 2013, is also available.
Time waits for one man.
There haven't been many western films in the past couple of decades, something that many fans of cinema (including myself) have bemoaned. The few westerns that have appeared, good as they may be, seem to be carrying a lot of weight on their shoulders…they have the pressure of "reviving the cinematic western" hanging over them. With 3:10 to Yuma, we are given an extraordinarily rare sort of western film…one that doesn't seem to realize that the western is dead. It's a lively, sad, rousing, funny motion picture that provides intelligent, but unpretentious entertainment from start to finish.
Facts of the Case
The film's Good Guy is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a simple farmer with a wife and two sons. Dan is in a great deal of financial trouble, and powerful people would like to take away Dan's farm to make way for the incoming railroad. One day, Dan and his kids witness a stage robbery conducted by the infamous Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), who has robbed and killed countless people. Wade is caught by the authorities, and is to be escorted to the nearest railroad station (at least a couple of days away) and put on the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison.
Because he is short on funds, Dan accepts a $200 offer to help escort Wade to the train station. A small posse accompanies Dan that includes a grizzled bounty hunter played by Peter Fonda. You'd think it would be a fairly simple task to transport a criminal from one place to another, but there are a number of factors to reckon with. First of all, Ben Wade is one smart cookie, a deceptively charming man capable of harsh violence and clever trickery. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the posse is being sought by Ben Wade's gang, led by the intensely vicious Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). And third…well, there are just a lot of unexpected obstacles that are bound to turn up, and they do.
The original 3:10 to Yuma was a very strong entry into the western genre, so many doubted director James Mangold's ability to remake the film successfully. However, Mangold makes a persuasive case for himself, offering one of the strongest remakes in recent years. Mangold did not intend to drastically alter the story or simply make more sensational for modern audiences. He was a big fan of the original movie as a child, and simply had enough love for the tale to want to tell it again. Unlike many remakes, 3:10 to Yuma is not based on a popular classic that people would recognize…most audiences had forgotten the original movie by 2007. With his remake, Mangold simply wanted to reintroduce the story to a 21st Century audience, doing fine-tuning and making various tweaks without compromising any of the elements that made the original film so memorable.
The film is based on a story written by Elmore Leonard, and that may explain its tone. The movie is quite violent, sometimes intensely dramatic, but often rather darkly humorous, and full of colorful, credible characters. The two lead characters both have a challenge to overcome. Bale has to avoid seeming like a clichéd, dull, one-dimensional good guy, and Crowe has to find a way to make some semi-suspicious character improbabilities work. Both succeed with flying colors, as perhaps we expect them to. These are two of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, both 100% committed to investing as much of themselves as possible into a performance. Bale is serious, quietly determined, and suffers every day to overcome the obstacles life has handed him. He also strives to retain the loyalty of his older son (Logan Lerman), who is perhaps too easily charmed by Ben Wade.
Then again, who wouldn't be charmed? We, the audience, frequently have to pinch ourselves as a reminder of just how violent Ben Wade is. He's almost impossible not to like…understated, charming, well-mannered, intelligent, and generally magnetic. There's a nice parallel between the characters in this film and the actors in this film…the Ben Wade character is easily the most interesting one, whoever plays him can steal the movie by default. In the hands of an actor like Crowe, nobody else stands a chance. The extremely talented Bale, on the other hand, has to scratch and claw for any praise he may get; his character is the rustiest item in a room full of shiny things. It's hard to say whether the movie "belongs" to one actor or the other, and that doesn't much matter…both are fabulous, do exactly what they should do, and that is that. One also gets the sense that either of these actors could have played either of these roles, and the results would have been equally satisfying.
A lot of praise has deservedly been tossed the way of Ben Foster, who plays the real villain of the film. As Ben Wade's savage right hand man, Foster makes a much bigger impression here than he did as the tortured angel in X-Men: The Last Stand. He reminded me a great deal of a young Woody Harrelson, he has that crazed Natural Born Killers look in his eye. It's also a pleasure to have Peter Fonda on hand, whose father (Henry Fonda) was in so many fantastic westerns. Even the small characters like Dan's wife (Gretchen Mol) and the wealthy Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) are well-developed.
I've spent much of my time so far discussing characters and performances, which is perhaps an indication of what a character-driven western this is. Despite being a remake retooled for modern audiences, action still manages to take a backseat to character development. That said, the action that is here is just terrific, particularly the thrilling climax which has a tremendous High Noon quality. The levels of dramatic tension are aided immensely by Marco Beltrami's score, which perfectly manages to evoke the creative, dynamic spirit of Ennio Morricone without ever resorting to blatant mimicry. The score is also a masterful example of pacing, slowly but surely building the themes over the course of the film before unleashing them in the thrilling half-hour climax.
Lionsgate has done a superb job with the DVD presentation of the film, offering a very solid transfer that allows the viewer to fully appreciate Phedon Papamichael's splendid cinematography. The Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 audio is even better, featuring one of the best mixes I've heard on a DVD. The balance between the sound effects, dialogue, and music is just right, and the mix goes a long way towards immersing the viewer in the rugged world of 3:10 to Yuma.
Extras are adequate, if not exactly overflowing. A twenty-minute making of documentary called "Destination Yuma" is an okay look at the film's production, while a six-minute piece entitled "An Epic Explored" offers a too-brief explanation of the western genre. The "Outlaws, Gangs, and Posses" mini-documentary is very interesting, as historians discuss the real-life outlaws of the old west. At 13 minutes, it's not exactly thorough, but nonetheless engrossing. Seven deleted scenes are mostly fairly dull bits of padding, but there's one 2 ½ minute dialogue scene between Crowe and Bale that's really quite good. Director James Mangold explains the reasons for cutting that scene in his commentary, which is the strongest special feature. Mangold does an excellent job and was obviously quite prepared, never slipping into describing the action or permitting lengthy pauses. The commentary is a very strong balance of trivia, stories from the set, comparisons to the original movie, technical information, and character dissection.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have very little to say in this department, aside from a couple of minor casting complaints. Though the film does a superb job of fleshing out the supporting cast, the gunman played by Kevin Durand is a bit too one-note. Fortunately, he's gone before the first hour is over. Also, the "stunt casting" of Luke Wilson in a later scene is distracting, the fact that Wilson is playing the character is more interesting than anything the character actually does. Not that Wilson does a bad job, but he's simply too big for the part, it could take a viewer out of the movie a little bit.
James Mangold has made a string of decent films over the course of his career (Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, Walk the Line, Kate and Leopold), and this is his most confident. He paces the film very well, and brings a certain level of excitement and stylish realism to the action scenes. Unlike some of his previous efforts, there's no sense that Mangold is yearning for award recognition here. Instead, he seems to have set out to simply make a very good movie, and in doing so, has made his best movie to date. This is the sort of film that will make you fall in love with westerns all over again.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director James Mangold
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