Crowe Vs. Bale: Mangold Reinvents Elmore Leonard Western

Maui Time | August 30, 2007
Crowe Vs. Bale

Mangold Reinvents Elmore Leonard Western

3:10 to Yuma (654 words)

By Cole Smithey

Director James Mangold’s update of the Elmore Leonard short story that spawned the original 1957 Western, is a gritty action-packed movie that trades on the talents of its headstrong leading men. Russell Crowe effortlessly settles into the role of mastermind robber Ben Wade, whose days of killing and theft draw to a close after his capture at a brothel where he dallies too long. Distraught rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is on the brink of loosing his land to the railroad when he accepts the promise of a rich reward to help capture and escort Ben Wade as far as the 3:10 train to Yuma prison where he is to be hanged. Nevertheless, the handcuffed prisoner increases his chances of escape with every guard he eliminates during the intense overland journey. Dan’s disobedient teenage son Will (Logan Lerman) comes to his father’s aid, and proves to be an essential asset before the train for Yuma leaves the station. Aside from a few plot pits, “3:10 to Yuma” is a boisterous Western with strong ensemble performances all around.

Early on, ruffians set fire to Dan’s barn and he swears retribution that he is powerless to achieve. Since losing a leg in the Civil War, Dan wears a prosthetic limb that challenges his son’s doubts about his father. Even Dan’s wife (Gretchen Mol) has little faith in her husband’s ability to provide for their family. These are the ingredients of pathos that Christian Bale skewers as a master of the unexpected emotion.

The often overlooked Western genre is enjoying a spike thanks to movies like “September Dawn” and the upcoming breathlessly titled “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” “3:10 to Yuma” sets itself apart from the archetypal revenge structure by pitting the notion of an ingenious bandit against an emasculated war veteran struggling to save his family. There’s a wealth of dramatic material here, and a large part of the film’s appeal comes from the duality between its notoriously contentious leading men. Russell Crowe’s studied composure withers in the presence of Bale’s slow-burn tenacity even as Wade is sold as Dan’s physical and intellectual superior. Bale is the better actor, and you can see it in the way he manipulates nuances of motivation that leave a mark, while Crowe’s throwaway performance is smooth to a fault.

James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) sees where Elmore Leonard’s post modern Western strays from classical constraints of the genre, and is keen to emphasize an unconventional tone to the violence. Sequences of brutal action are treated with the desperation and intellect of the characters, while staying true to their inherent cinematic energy. There’s a moment of fetishistic appreciation for the weaponry of the day during a payroll coach robbery that Wade commands before being caught. A shiny Gatling gun mounted in the coach promises to overpower the thieves, and the audience is invited to marvel at its impressive functionality. And yet, when Dan and his son come upon the heist from afar, we share in accepting the dark allure of the crime that Will appreciates for its palpable excitement. It’s a thrill that the wide-eyed kid unknowingly shares with Wade’s fiercely loyal henchman Charlie Prince (played with exquisite menace by Ben Foster). Will’s longing voyeurism quickly shifts to that of active participant and along the way he proves himself to have an adult’s knack for effecting change.

Visually, “3:10 to Yuma” is stunning. An undercurrent of excitement permeates every frame of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s lens. A battle of wits between Dan and Wade lock the men in an extended duel that instructs Will is lessons of loyalty that the audience is privy to on a subconscious level until the film’s last moments bring on a rush of realization. Justice is not what it seems.

Rated R, 120 mins. (B+)


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