Wednesday, January 09, 2008

3:10 to Yuma: Grade B

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman; Director James Mangold

Crowe is the arrogant, smirking, Bible-quoting leader of a vicious gang of western bandits who holds up a payroll stagecoach (something they have done many times before), slaughtering most of its Pinkerton guard. The feat is witnessed with disgust by peaceful cattle rancher Bale and his son (Lerman). When Crowe is captured, the head of the Pinkertons wants him escorted to a distant train station, where a prison train, stopping at 3:10, will take him to a federal prison in Yuma. Bale’s character volunteers to join that mission, which involves about 5 men. Crowe’s gang of thugs pursues them to free their boss. The rescue gang is led by Ben Foster who delivers the high intensity that electrified the screen in Alpha Dog. The posse faces various threats on the way to the train station as the gang closes in. At the station and outnumbered, even the Marshall and the Pinkerton guy quit the effort, fearing for their lives. Bale tells his son: “If I don’t come back, you can say your father took Ben Wade to the prison train when no one else would.” Crowe and Bale’s adversarial relationship evolves into a kind of mutual admiration.

It’s a great human drama, and a well-produced western, with lots of guns, horses, wagons, dirt, and steam engines. It was shot in New Mexico, which is the wrong kind of terrain for Arizona, but most people won’t notice that, and the cinematography is outstanding. Directing is flawless and the acting is exceptionally good, even by Peter Fonda, and Luke Wilson (who has an uncredited bit part). In fact, the acting is so good, it raises the quality of this film way above average. What ruins it however, are thoughtless plotting and annoying music. The character drama almost overcomes the contrivances of plot, but not quite. Why does the posse holding Crowe check in to the bridal suite of a hotel to wait for the bad guys, instead of waiting at the railroad station? Why do they wait at all? They could have stayed in the hills outside of town until they saw the train. Why do the bad guys surround the hotel but sit and drink whiskey, waiting for the train, instead of storming the hotel room? And couldn’t the posse come up with another pair of handcuffs or at least a little piece of rope to prevent Crowe from repeatedly escaping and killing off their members? In the final scene, Crowe’s resolution to support Bale is not clear so the big gunfight makes no sense. Who is shooting at whom, and why? Why doesn’t Crowe just sit down and have a smoke instead of running from his own gang? Of course all the bad guys can only hit posts and fixtures while Bale never misses his target once while waving his 30-shot six-shooter. Bale does get shot in the back once, but it apparently heals up within 10 minutes and he is fine. There are many anachronisms in dialog and sets, which is just laziness in a period movie. These defects in the screenplay spoil what could have been a “High Noon” kind of classic, and the grating music misses an opportunity for a restrained and suggestive sound to match the vast openness of the desert and the understated but powerful performances of the actors.

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