Major westerns have become so infrequent that every new sagebrush oater ignites a discussion about the state of the genre. The epic Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven did exceedingly well, but the argument can be made that the western has been in decline since the end of the 1960s. 3:10 to Yuma is a big-budget remake of a 1957 Glenn Ford - Van Heflin gem directed by Delmer Daves. Its modest scale is now considered too small for a TV show, let alone a major release catering to an audience expecting serious western action -- shootouts, chases, jeopardy and violence. Witness the no-show box office of this year's revisionist outlaw tale The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: it offers only a few scenes of muted, understated gunplay. In contrast, new trailers for 3:10 to Yuma remind us of The Magnificent Seven, with massed gun battles, a stagecoach wreck, execution murders, explosions -- the works. The remake is rousing entertainment, even if its only truly memorable component is Russell Crowe's sly performance.
Instructions: Take one 1957 western, add color and Panavision. Enhance the original's standard stage holdup into a giant action set piece with a score of dead bodies, falling horses, a Gatling gun and a stage wreck. Give Dan a multi-layered back-story. Make him a handicapped war veteran with an older son who's ashamed of his old man for not defending his turf with a gun. Imply that Dan's wife (Gretchen Mol) also thinks he's a wimp, and has turned him out of her bed. Have Dan victimized by crooked businessmen that burn his barn as a means of seizing his farm to sell to the corporate railroad. Inflate the trip to Contention, transforming it into a perilous journey with fights against Indians and a shoot-out with treacherous miners (that oppress their Chinese laborers, for proper PC positioning). Add a dozen speaking roles to the story to provide targets for yet more superfluous action scenes.
Most of the old script by Halstead Welles remains in the remake, beneath the extra trimmings designed to update 3:10 to Yuma for modern audiences. Russell Crowe brings an amusing new interpretation to the character of Ben Wade. The outlaw shoots his own henchman without batting an eyelid, and then puts his own life in jeopardy to linger in Bisbee with the amorous Emmy. The best moment in the movie occurs when Dan's precociously capable son William (Logan Lerman) doubts that Wade is such a bad man. Wade tells the kid straight out that he certainly is a bad man, and that he's perfectly willing to kill anybody to effect his escape.
Along with the new action scenes come a fistful of added character complications. Young William Evans is now a junior gunslinger, turning the tale into a saga about passing on masculine values from father to son. This predictable subplot is actually a step backwards from late 50s films about older westerners mentoring younger guns on the responsibility of violence: The Lonely Man, The Tin Star. Those pictures taught that bravado and brute force were undesirable, while judgment and reserve could win the day. The new 3:10 to Yuma preaches that the most important thing is to maintain one's pride and keep fighting no matter what. If William decides that his father is a wuss because he won't go head-to-head with a dozen pro gunslingers, it's the father's problem, not the son's.
Western stories have weight when we perceive moral truths being revealed beneath the surface action. In Eastwood's Unforgiven the myth of glorious frontier justice is reduced to ignorant, drunken butchery. The new 3:10 to Yuma takes the wisdom of a great western like Ride the High Country and turns it on its ear. To confect an exciting twist ending, the final confrontation with Ben Wade's outlaw gang is warped into a multiple gun-down worthy of Sergio Leone. By that time 3:10 to Yuma has long abandoned its hold on the original's sense of drama. This is what it takes to fill theater seats these days.
As a production, the new 3:10 to Yuma is a beauty. The visuals feature eye-catching landscapes and the action scenes deliver the promised thrills and mayhem. Director Mangold avoids contemporary Chop Suey editing patterns, opting instead for a more staccato version of classic staging. In most scenes, we can actually see what's going on as it happens. We can identify who's being killed and who survives. It's an idea that just might catch on.
Russell Crowe's Ben Wade is also 'enhanced' by giving him a compulsion to make pencil sketches, This artistic impulse leads to a laughable scene where Ben sketches the nude Emmy more or less like Leonardo DiCaprio drew Kate Winslet in Titanic. What's next, a western where the dangerous killer shows his feminine side by knitting?
Christian Bale is suitably intense throughout. His Dan is so anxious to earn that $200 of blood money, we'd think his barren acres are caught in the subprime loan crisis. Somewhere on the trail Dan's motivation changes from economic necessity to that old stand-by: 'a man's gotta do what he's gotta do.' It may seem unfair to persist in comparing this remake to the B&W original, but the fact is that the added character complications have only made Dan Evans and Ben Wade less interesting.
Beyond thematic considerations, we wonder two things about the physical mechanics of 3:10 to Yuma. Dan Evans gets around very well for a man missing a foot. We even see him running at times. And the detective played by Peter Fonda should be nominated for Iron Man status. Shot in the stomach, Fonda returns to action only a few minutes later, galumphing along on a fast horse and showing only a hint of discomfort!
As expected, Lionsgate's DVD of 3:10 to Yuma is an excellent enhanced transfer of the handsomely photographed box office success. The packaging claims a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The audio is crisp and the mixers have not tried to overwhelm us with monster sound effects, a very good choice. Action westerns are always fun, and Lionsgate's show delivers the goods.
The single disc presentation offers a full complement of extras. Director Mangold (Walk the Line) provides a friendly commentary. He starts by making the point that his film can be distinguished from other remakes in that the original is now too obscure to be a salable commodity on the basis of its title alone. He's open about reusing much of Halstead Welles' original script and updating the story for a modern audience. But he perceives the story in terms of an ordinary conflict between bravery and cowardice. If modern westerns seem dumber than ever, it's because they tend to revert to the genre's most simpleminded story elements.
David Naylor's attractive featurettes present the filmmakers discussing the show over behind the scenes footage, with an interesting emphasis on special effects mechanics. Another featurette uses input from academics to look at the historical basis for movies about Outlaws, Gangs and Posses, while An Epic Explored is a less focused item about the western genre's reflection of the culture at large.
A long list of deleted scenes (mostly bits of scenes) consists of extra dialogue, especially from the less prominent characters. Is it reasonable to expect an 'extended version' to surface, reinstating this footage? Although some of the snippets are interesting 3:10 to Yuma plays fine as it is.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
3:10 to Yuma rates:
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