James Mangold has remade the 1957 semiclassic Western, 3:10 to Yuma, in the same way that Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear. In both cases, a story told in a modest, taut black-and-white movie has been reupholstered in color and packed with thunderous special effects, hammy acting, pretentious psychology, and doses of hyperviolence entirely unjustified by the needs of the story.
The basic situation and even some of the dialogue of the earlier screenplay, Halsted Welles’s fine adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s short story, have been retained by the new writers, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas. A farmer, ruined by draught and desperate for the reward money, agrees to escort a notorious outlaw to the train that will take him to prison. The criminal, Ben Wade, ruthless but courtly and (allowing for his profession) strangely honorable, plays upon the farmer’s fears and offers him more money than he would make fulfilling his assignment. Holed up with his charge in a second-floor hotel room and gradually deprived of any assistance while under siege by Wade’s gang, the farmer, Dan Evans, grows ever more rattled, yet ever more determined to make the final walk through dusty streets to the train station. And Wade, just as determined to escape, can’t help but admire his captor’s gumption.
Obviously this is a story that needs a tightly confined setting, Hemingwayesque characterizations, and, above all, narrative concision. And here is what it gets from director Mangold and his collaborators: sprawling geography, characterizations that are either sick or sentimentalized (often both at once), and a narrative that is all over the place, literally and figuratively. The trek from the town where the outlaw is captured to the town with the hotel and the railroad station takes up more than three quarters of the narrative (it was less than a third in the 1957 movie). It is overstuffed with Indian attacks, tortures, murders, escapes and recaptures, massacres, and, worst of all, pretentious talk round the ol’ campfire. Ben Wade repeatedly gets away while killing more and more of his captors, which makes the lawmen look like idiots instead of the limited, shaky, but dogged men the story calls for. And, since heartthrob Russell Crowe is cast as Wade, and the filmmakers seem determined to keep him devilishly attractive, they resort to the Hannibal Lecter strategy: Sure, our nominal villain is a monster but since his opponents-excepting the farmer-are all swinish clowns, we may cheer as he dispatches them in various bloodcurdling ways.
This leads to some crazy narrative twists. Take the case of the bounty hunter played by Peter Fonda. We see him almost done in after being shot in the gut near the beginning of the movie, but he’s saved in a gory operation photographed in loving close-up. So, given the amount of time they spend on his shooting and recovery, the scriptwriters must have some important future use for this character, right? Wrong. Though Fonda gets a fleeting chance to make the bounty hunter a fairly interesting curmudgeon, the script soon assures us that he’s a slaughterer of Indian women and children so that we can cheer when Wade flings him to his death in a ravine. So Peter Fonda gets third billing merely to add to the body count?
Crowe, an unbeatable actor in the right part (The Insider, Master and Commander) is indeed both sinister and glamorous here, but I soon got fed up with the perpetual smirk on his face. As Evans the farmer, Christian Bale (brilliant in Rescue Dawn) seems too soft and boyish for the role in which Van Heflin was so craggily convincing. (The script provides the lame excuse that Bale is an Easterner who came west for the sake of his child’s health, but since when is starvation on a hardscrabble farm healthy?) For much of the movie, Bale’s performance seems to dwell within his beard, like a timid animal lurking in the sagebrush; only in the final siege sequence does he demonstrate his acting chops, rendering with subtlety the character’s conflicting emotions of desperation and rectitude. But even here the good actor is undercut by the shenanigans of the scriptwriters. As if it weren’t enough for him to want to feed his family and cut an honorable figure in his son’s eyes, he is burdened with the additional motive (introduced much too late in the story) of yearning to make up for his missed chance at heroism during the Civil War.
That’s not all that is unnecessary in the script. Can’t Ben Wade be both ruthless and charming without having to spout Nietzschean philosophy while demonstrating a talent for pen-and-ink sketching? And does he have to evince an Oedipus complex in the final reel?
Visually, 3:10 to Yuma is a sledgehammer to the temples with the camera pressed relentlessly close to bellowing faces, frothing horses, and barking guns. All the action scenes are overedited into mere blurs of motion, which of course relieves the director of the obligation to choreograph them lucidly.
Even the soundtrack is inexpressive. The music and gunshots are Dolby-ized to the max, but where are the simpler sounds of frontier life? Never mind the earlier film; even the Elmore Leonard story has a better soundtrack: “There was a whisper of wind.... It whipped sand specks from the street and rattled them against clapboard, and the sound was hollow and lifeless. Somewhere a screen door banged away.”
Leonard remarked in an interview that he “saw how easily Hollywood could screw up a simple story.” And he was talking about the 1957 film. I wonder what he thinks about this overblown Technicolor mess?