'3:10 to Yuma' Chugs Along Familiar Tracks

From left, Alan Tudyk, Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Peter Fonda and Glen Hollander in the western
From left, Alan Tudyk, Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Peter Fonda and Glen Hollander in the western "3:10 to Yuma," a remake that doesn't match the 1957 original. (By Richard Foreman -- Lionsgate Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007

One hopes (I do, anyway) that "3:10 to Yuma" is a big hit. That means there will be more westerns, and we old goats can die happy, with our boots on, our guns holstered and the sun at our back, humming Ricky Nelson's "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" as we go to Jesus.

Too bad it's not better. It's a pretty frail reed on which to bank the genre's future, even with big guys Russell Crowe and Christian Bale at the center. Based on a '50s western (hardly a classic; the title song, sung by the great Frankie Laine, is better remembered than the actual movie), it features Crowe as Ben Wade, a charismatic killer who becomes the custody of small-fry rancher Dan Evans (Bale) on a journey to the nearest depot for that train of title. If Evans, way overmatched and opposed by Wade's gang as well as Wade himself, brings it off, he gets a reward that will let him save his ranch from bigger-fry business interests.

Well, already you have one relic from the '50s that most movies today lack: a motive. There's an actual reason for Evans's reluctant heroics, and you can throw in some other stuff: Evans's sons and wife think he's too passive and here's his chance to win some man points. The remake, directed by James Mangold, bothers to set this up, follow it through and watch it grow to obsession. Emotional coherence: More movies should try the gimmick. Amazing what the results would be.

But Delmer Daves, who directed the original back in '57, knew a thing or two. His stars were Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Much smarter casting: Ford had a slyness under his famous earnestness and could alchemize to insincere charm projecting hidden menace, while Heflin, no looker, had a lumpy potato face but an innate decency, so the equation was right. Mangold reverses it, turns the lumpy potato-face guy into the slick psycho (Crowe, that is) and the male-modely pretty boy into the earnest rancher. Right from the start, it feels wrong. The handsome guy should be the bad guy, based on all our lumpenprole dislike of men who get women too easily.

The movie feels like an uneasy combination of new and old western stylings. For example, in the days before Sam Peckinpah's 1969 masterpiece "The Wild Bunch," it was usual for people to get shot in the stomach, pour a little water on it and go on with the movie. That's right, they shook off a sucking gut wound. In the post-"Wild Bunch" days, a bullet blew a magenta cloud of viscera in slo-mo out the exit wound. So in "3:10 to Yuma" you have a weird combination: a magenta cloud of pulverized viscera, followed by a little water and back in the movie. It really doesn't work, even if the subject of bullet and miracle cure is the ageless icon Peter Fonda, wasted in a role as a bounty hunter. (He would have been superb as Ben Wade or Dan Evans!)

The original resolved itself into a "High Noon" clone, ending up in a real-time scenario punctuated by clock close-ups until the whistle sounded, the train arrived and all hell broke loose, and we walked briskly to a happy ending in 93 minutes. It generated some real suspense as the two male archetypes -- predator and provider -- faced each other across eight feet of hotel room and a geological chasm between savagery and civilization. The remake adds 24 minutes and subtracts most of the suspense. There's no claustrophobia and despite the artificiality of the time boundary, little sense of urgency. The Stockholm-syndrome nonsense -- the bond between guys good and bad over their shared ordeal -- of the original is bloated toward total absurdity in an ending that taxes believability while pandering to modern tastes for nihilism.

Neither star seems to add much to his canon; oddly enough, a week after seeing the new movie in a theater on a giant screen and the old one on DVD, it's the old one that lingers in my mind. They had faces, then. Also, the old one had haunting cinematographic texture and some unusually aggressive camera moves -- crane shots, moving cameras, severe black-and-white cinematography that turned the final back-alley walk to the station almost to film noir. Nothing about it is singular. Mangold doesn't have Daves's gift for composition, or the color of dust rising in the desert, or the weight of steam spurting from the 3:10's locomotive.

About the only remarkable thing the film offers is the young actor Ben Foster as Wade's No. 2 gun, Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel played Charlie in the original). It's odd: As he aged, Jaeckel got better and better until he always registered and became one of Hollywood's leading character actors. But in the remake, Foster is the whole story. He was also in "Alpha Dog," a tough teen docudrama a few years back, and you may remember him for his eyes. He's got steely focus and a glare that could melt a bank vault door. When he's on screen, nobody else is visible. This could be a big breakthrough for him.

"3:10 to Yuma" (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence.

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