With the exceptions of Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, few Hollywood filmmakers have paid much attention to the wild, wild west in the last 20 years or so with the exception, of course, of that godawful Will Smith film that practically sealed the coffin on cinematic life out West.
Eastwood became distracted by his new bedfellow, Oscar, and Costner finally came to the realization that, just perhaps, he ought to actually make a film with some commercial viability before his acting career itself became as empty as a Hollywood ghost town.
In the past year, however, tumbleweeds have rumbled and Australia's "The Proposition" and Tommy Lee Jones's "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" displayed just enough box-office prowess to raise the eyebrows of even the most cynical Hollywood executive.
2007 may end up being the year that the Western genre comes back to life, with two Oscar-bait Westerns ready for a box-office showdown.
Both films, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "3:10 to Yuma," are packed with all-star casts, pedigreed writers/directors and bigger budgets than have been afforded Hollywood Westerns in quite some time.
In "3:10 to Yuma," director James Mangold's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "Walk the Line," Hollywood finally manages to do a remake that is actually better then the original. 1957's "3:10 to Yuma" starred Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in a fairly straightforward take on a classic Elmore Leonard short story. While generally well-received, the original film was widely faulted as an unimaginative interpretation of Leonard's novel with a disappointingly Hollywood-style ending.
James Mangold, however, adds 30 minutes of meat and a reinvented ending to the 2007 version of "3:10 to Yuma" that, while still a touch soft considering the nearly two hours of passion, action and intensity just viewed, is a far more ambiguous and satisfying ending provides only a few answers along with its unanswered questions.
The action begins with rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), left crippled by the Civil War and on the verge of losing his farm, his dignity and the respect of his 14-year-old son, Will (Logan Lerman), and his wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol).
When smooth-talking bandit Ben Wade(Russell Crowe) and his wild-eyed band of thieves hold up a local payroll coach, chaos ensues and numerous deaths are the result. However, the charismatic Ben spends a tad too long carrying on with a local barmaid and is captured by the locals, assisted by Dan, while his gang escapes. Local law enforcement decides to make Ben an example and rounds up an small army of men to get him on the 3:10 to Yuma so that he can publicly hang.
To help pay off his debts and save his farm, Dan offers up his services in escorting Wade on the two-day trip to the nearby train station in Contention.
Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, Wade is a worthy match for his escorts with his charismatic smile and his conniving mind seemingly always one step ahead of his band of escorts.
Before long, two of Ben's escorts are dead and he has managed to infiltrate the wounded psyches of those who remain including Dan, whom he taunts regularly about his missing leg and inadequacy as a spouse.
As this rather motley crew of escorts journeys through Apache territory and along a treacherous railway construction, the battles of brawn and brain become magnified as Ben's fight for freedom and Dan's fight for survival. When Ben nearly escapes, stopped only by the unexpected appearance of Dan's on, Dan's survival is made even more tenuous and it appears "3:10 to Yuma" is headed down a slippery slope towards an inevitable fate for both men.
Similar to what happened in "Walk the Line," Mangold has surrounded himself with a stellar cast able to take even the most skeletal script and/or direction and bring it to life. Even when "3:10 to Yuma" teeters dangerously close to complacency, the fiery intensity of its two lead stars, along with surprisingly strong supporting performances by Ben Foster, as Ben Wade's #2 man, and Peter Fonda as a crotchety ole' bounty hunter, bring the festivities back to life.
While "3:10 to Yuma" has been touted as potential Oscar bait, the film suffers in ways similar to Mangold's "Walk the Line," which did earn several Oscar nominations and one win for star Reese Witherspoon. The biggest problem lies in Mangold's continued inability to know when to say "when." While increased character development and plot exposition can be a wonderful thing, it can also be a remarkably self-indulgent exercise when the artistic expression decreases the dramatic tension rather than increases it.
In the original film, for example, there's an almost breathtaking tension between the two leads throughout the entire film and it seldom let up. In Mangold's film, the verbal acrobatics between Ben and Dan become so excessive that you can't help but wonder if the lawmen really picked up the right guy who supposedly shoots first and asks questions later.
Despite the film's modest flaws, "3:10 to Yuma" is a definite sign of growth for a director who hit the A-list with "Walk the Line" after years of toiling around in Hollywood on films such as "Identity" and "Kate & Leopold." Yet, even with "Walk the Line," Mangold's direction was questioned even as the brilliance of his cast was widely praised. In "3:10 to Yuma," Mangold's direction largely catches up to the wonder of his once again brilliant cast.
While Crowe and Bale undoubtedly offer up performances equal to or even surpassing that of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line," Oscar nominations for either actor would be rather surprising. The problem isn't so much any defined flaw in either performance, but the simple fact that Both Bale and Crowe have played these characters before, albeit in entirely different settings.
Hollywood and the rest of the world already knows that Crowe can play the smooth-talking con man, while it's certainly no secret that Bale, long one of Hollywood's more underrated actors, can play the vulnerable man who tapes into his own courage and strength better than most actors out there.
If anyone from "3:10 to Yuma" ends up being recognized, it may very well be a Best Supporting Actor nod for Ben Foster, whose creepy, yet oddly sentimental turn as Ben's #2 man is consistently mesmerizing. At the very least, this is a star-turning performance for Foster.
In supporting roles, young Logan Lerman ("Hoot") shows he's ready for the big leagues while an even more surprisingly satisfying performance in a brief appearance is turned in by Luke Wilson.
Yes, it's true. Luke Wilson can act.
Phedon Papamichael's cinematography shines, both with panoramic spectrum shots and handheld action shots, while Marco Beltrami's score serves as an atmospheric accompaniment to the film's proceedings.
With "3:10 to Yuma" a solid winner and Brad Pitt's upcoming Jesse James flick already receiving positive early buzz, it appears that 2007 may very well be the year when the Western comes riding back into town.
I suggest you catch the 3:10 showing of "3:10 to Yuma" when it opens nationwide on September 7th.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic