Thursday, September 6, 2007

"3:10 to Yuma": The train still runs

Summary: Director James Magnold climbs aboard "3:10 to Yuma" carrying more psychological baggage than you'll find in the original and pumping up the action wherever possible. Bolder and more violent than the 1957 Glenn Ford Western, the 2007 edition stars Russell Crowe, as bad man Ben Wade, and Christian Bale as rancher Dan Evans, a Civil War veteran who wants to prove his courage to his teen-age son. I'm not sure that Mangold has much that's new to say, but he certainly says it emphatically.

Although many regard it as memorable, Delmer Daves' 1957 Western, which was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, feels a bit static by today's juiced-up standards. Daves worked deliberately, staging one of the movie's most important scenes in a hotel room and not budging from that room until he thought the story was good and ready. Perhaps understanding that tastes and expectations have changed, Mangold ("Walk the Line"), doesn't so much rewrite the story as re-balance its ingredients and give the whole thing a swift kick in the pants.

Many of the classic Western elements survive: the rancher who struggles to secure a place for his family, the greedy railroad types who want to burn him out and an outlaw who doesn't fit into any part of society. But when Mangold puts a stage coach robbery on the screen, he makes it clear that he intends to ride the action hard. He seems less interested in the vast possibilities suggested by the open spaces of the West than in lighting a charge under the material. Maybe that's why the iron-plated stagecoach that's being robbed comes equipped with a Gatling gun.

In the original, Ford kept audiences guessing about how evil Ben Wade might be. Crowe follows a similar tack; his Ben Wade is a Bible-quoting, soft-spoken outlaw who eschews most of the familiar bad-man poses. He's wily and efficiently brutal without crossing the line into sadism. Theft and murder have become a part of him, the way suspicion might become second-nature to a cop. At every turn, he gives the impression that he understands how the world works.

Taking over the role that Van Heflin played in the original, Bale portrays Wade's intense opposite. Dan tests his mettle when he agrees to escort Wade to the appropriately named town of Contention, Ariz. There, the outlaw will be put on the train to Yuma. Once imprisoned, he'll be hanged. Forced into debt, Dan needs the $200 the railroad's paying to transport Wade. He also wants to prove that he's made of stern stuff, partly to his wife (Gretechen Mol) and to his oldest son (Logan Lerman), but maybe to himself, as well. Bale's Dan can be so determined and single-minded that he's actually scarier than Wade, who wears his amorality easily.

In the end, Crowe's Wade gives the movie its most interesting spin. He's a little like a surrogate for the audience. He may be a bad man and a killer, but he's so jaded, he doesn't seem to take the old Western rituals all that seriously. He's caught in a role that he knows how to play, but that long ago ceased to give him much pleasure.

On its most interesting level, the story exposes the conflict between a needy man and one who doesn't seem to need anything. As is the case with so many who traveled westward from the East, Dan's life badly needed remaking. Wade wants to remain free, but he's not driven. The contest between Dan and Wade isn't so much based on battling wills, but on entirely different approaches to the world. Dan's in the grip of tunnel vision; Wade has the widened gaze of a man who's seen it all.

Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), the most obviously evil man in Wade's gang, comes off as a crazed killer who seems to enjoy violence more than anyone in the film. Prince's devotion to Ben borders on idol worship. Peter Fonda signs on as a bounty hunter who's dogged and vicious in his own way, one of those Western characters who probably smells as bad as he looks.

As befits a Western, the story takes place beyond the reach of civilization in terrain where everyone ultimately fends for himself. At one point, the law shows up, but when the local marshal realizes that he's badly out-gunned, he quickly thinks better about lending a hand. He's not about to die so that the Southern Pacific Railroad can see a criminal brought to justice. Like Wade, he can't understand why Dan doesn't take the easy way out.

Mangold augments the original with scenes involving a foray into a mining outpost and a quick skirmish with Apaches. In the final showdown, Dan -- abandoned by everyone -- faces a barrage of angry guns as he tries to get Wade to the train station. Those familiar with the original may be surprised at the way Mangold brings the action to a close. As the screenplay searches for hard-core justice, Mangold's style reaches its exclamatory peak.

Well-made and entertaining, "3:10 to Yuma" never quite achieves perfection. The original qualified as a small, back-burner Western that gained in stature over the years. Mangold doesn't totally succeed in turning it into something bigger. "3:10 to Yuma" is a good movie, but you can't imagine it starting a stampede of saddle-sore imitators. The movie occupies an odd limbo -- somewhere between steely-eyed revisionism and blind genre love. I can't say I totally understood why Mangold wanted to remake this movie, why he thought it needed to be brought back into the pop-cultural conversation.

And as long as we're on the subject of guns....

"Shoot 'em Up" does everything in its power to let you know it's a movie short of taking you into the projection booth and letting you run the celluloid through your fingers. Over-the-top violence is tempered with campy, wise-ass dialog and overtly cartoonish antics; to prove the point, the hero's always taking Bugs Bunny-sized bites out of carrots, using them either as nourishment or turning them into weapons. Yes, carrots can kill.
A mixture of John Woo and Chuck Jones, "Shoot em up" is skillful and full of action that tries to outdo every other action movie. It's a study in cinematic escalation.

Clive Owen, at his most deadpan and deadly, plays a marksman who tries to save the life of a pregnant woman and runs afoul of a slimeball thug (Paul Giamatti). The woman dies, and Owen's character ends up with the newly born baby. Thus charged, the picture is off and running -- not to mention firing bullets in every conceivable direction and at every possible moment, including while Owen's character makes frantic love to a hooker played by Monica Bellucci. Bellucci's character signs on as wet nurse for the baby and as a love interest for Owen.

Woo's cinematographer Peter Pau shot the movie, which is inventively twisted. Note the early scene in which Owen's character severs the connection between mother and child by cutting the umbilical chord with a bullet fired from one of the movie's many large guns or maybe you prefer the scene in which Giamatti's character demonstrates his wanton depravity by placing his hand on the exposed breast of a dead woman.

Generically titled and proud of it, "Shoot 'em Up" asks us to admire its audacity: It's all audacity and mayhem, a movie that wants to have its blood and drink it, too. Part parody and part genre soup, "Shoot 'em Up" probably has a bigger body count than a bad day in Baghdad.

Yes, it's fast-paced. Yes, it's creatively violent. And, yes, the plot is preposterous with a capital "P." But it's also a little off-putting. Not just because the movie tries to make us squirm, but because it insists on pushing our once dark and guilt-ridden pleasures into the multiplex light. Remember when directors didn't set out to make cult movies, but stumbled into them? Remember when guilty pleasures didn't feature A-list actors? Remember when grindhouse movies played at grindhouses? Remember when a nasty little movie didn't have to refer to dozens of other nasty little movies to establish its street cred? Each one of these "hip" and stylish exercises further robs us of counter-cultural pleasures, creating the impression -- and perhaps even the reality -- that there is only one stream, the mainstream.

No comments: