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September 5-11, 2007

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Photograph by Richard Foreman
CAN'T WE GET ALONG?: Renaissance-man bad guy Russell Crowe attempts to negotiate his way out of some sticky business in '3:10 to Yuma.'

How the West Was Lost

James Mangold tries to breathe gunsmoke into a moribund genre in '3:10 to Yuma'

By Richard von Busack

AFTER THE success of Walk the Line, director James Mangold tries to make 3:10 to Yuma as a Western to end all Westerns. This strategy has been tried before (in 1969, for instance, in a little movie called Once Upon a Time in the West). If 3:10 to Yuma becomes a hit, it will be because of the power of the Western themes themselves and not because of the social-commentary and bric-a-brac with which Mangold loads this film.

A debt-harried, maimed Civil War vet, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), is ranching an arid patch in southern Arizona. As the film begins, his barn is burned by regulators from the Southern Pacific railroad, who want him to sell out his property. Evans doesn't shoot the marauders, which seems like weakness to his chafing adolescent son Will (Logan Lerman), a 14-year-old intoxicated by Western dime novels.

Evans has no room for adventure, though. His youngest son is gasping with tuberculosis and he has to face the disappointment of his weary wife, Alice (maybe they should have found someone wearier than Gretchen Mol). Having to raise some money fast, Evans must herd his scrawny cattle into town.

Nearby, the actual stuff of dime novels is going on. The fearsome Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), armed with his pistol, "the Hand of God," has engineered a robbery of the Wells Fargo stagecoach. His pinprick-eyed psycho lieutenant Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) helps shoot the survivors. Among them is the hired gun Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), who was protecting the coach's gold.

Evans and Will stumble into the crime scene; Wade and his bandits help themselves to the rancher's horses. Though gut-shot at close range, McElroy survives the attack. After a quick operation from the town's veterinarian (Alan Tudyk of Serenity, good and droll as always), Evans helps organize the capture of Wade.

An unsteady posse heads out: one broken rancher; one bespectacled horse doctor, one high-handed weakling of an SP executive (Dallas Roberts) and one wounded lawman. They escort Wade to the railhead at Contention, to ship him off on the 3:10 train to the territorial prison at Yuma. Wade's armed and dangerous gang remains at large, ready to spring him during the trip across the Apache-haunted open country.

Elmore Leonard's story fueled the original film version, a minor but efficient oater of 1957, complete with Frankie Laine moaning the title song. Glenn Ford played the thoroughly evil robber, and Van Heflin—always half-crumbled before any film began—played the desperate rancher who helped round him up.

I interviewed Leonard once and asked him why he had stopped writing Westerns. I wondered if the social changes of the late 1960s had pushed him into more morally ambiguous work than Westerns provided. (Leonard was living outside Detroit and would have gotten a good look at the 1968 riots, which would tend to make anyone lose faith in the idea that sometimes a man's got to take the law into his own hands and do what he's gotta do.)

Leonard said that in his opinion the Westerns dried up strictly because of firepower itself. Once audiences had heard automatic weapons, they were less interested in six-shooters. Well, Mangold has that avenue covered, and the final shootout is a 101-gun salute, with a plywood town getting splintered.

This big-time gunplay is part of the nod to all the movies that have come along since the golden age of the Western. Since I saw an uncut version, these scenes may have been deleted. What I did see was an Indiana Jones kind of business with an exploding tunnel and dozens of Chinese laborers milling about. Crowe's Wade is the post–Hannibal Lecter killer, a dandy in an embroidered vest, able to charm one moment and spear a person's throat in the next.

Just as Vietnam kept intruding into Westerns from 1965 to the early 1980s, Mangold puts in a bit of Iraq: an Abu Ghraib torture sequence and a speech of disillusionment from Evans, who believes that he lost his leg in a war that decided nothing and got paid chump change from the government as well.

All this is distracting enough, but Mangold gets caught in the fork of having too much identification building up between the two protagonists. Wade grows in Renaissance-man status, waxing philosophical and doing little pencil sketches between murders. At some point, Mangold must have been struck by worrying that the audience would be disappointed if either good or evil triumphed. Here is the same wishy-washiness that was evident in Mangold's troubled Cop Land.

Mangold does deliver enough of the basic pleasures of the Western so that much of 3:10 to Yuma works on the basic level. The film has a clear path to success, though. This has been the cinematic summer of "bromance" (to use a word coined by David Carnie to describe Knocked Up, Superbad, Chuck & Larry, etc.), and Crowe and Bale's moral duel comes to this year's kind of crowd-pleasing ending. Ultimately, the last line ought to be the one Joanne Dru delivered in Red River: "Anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other."

Movie Times3:10 TO YUMA (R; 117 min.), directed by James Mangold, written by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, based on a story by Elmore Leonard, photographed by Phedon Papamichael and starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, opens Sept. 7 valleywide.

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