Stop Remaking Sense
Updated Western Fails To Embrace The Genre
A remake of a forgotten 1957 western with the same name, 3:10 to Yuma pits impoverished rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) against murderous bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). With no way to feed or water his cattle, Evans accepts $200 to transport Wade to Yuma, Ariz., for a 3:10 train that will take the man to prison. Wade's gang, filled with the typically eccentric western malcontents and temporarily led by dust-covered dandy Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), are out to stop them while Wade, a charmer who would prefer not to kill Evans--whom he generally likes and respects--tries to convince the rancher to take a payoff and run before his men show up and fill him with bullets.
The premise, here and in the original, presents a wonderful morality play into which any two actors would love to sink their teeth. In '57, they were Van Heflin as Evans and Glenn Ford as Wade. However, in '57, Heflin's Evans was forced to portray his character at a disadvantage; much of Evans' motivation was the need to impress his wife and two sons, who viewed him as a coward, but that motivation was all but forgotten after the first 40 minutes until a quick scene near the climax. Today, director James Mangold has brought Evans' 14-year-old son Will (Logan Lerman) along for a journey that, in '57, was less than one day, but here has been expanded to two in order to accommodate two new action sequences. That means Yuma begins as a quest of sorts for father and son reconciliation, figuratively and literally. The original didn't need it, and while this remake has fun with it, it doesn't need it either.
And that's not the only problem here, chief among them Crowe's performance and Mangold's direction. Crowe follows up another terrible showing in 2006's unintentionally laughable A Good Year with one he appears to be sleepwalking through--it's hard to find a movie featuring an actor who looks so truly bored with his work. The idea is that two equals are forced into a game of mental chicken, but Bale's pained intensity charges up every scene to such a degree that the lethargic Crowe is entirely canceled out. You're almost unaware that Crowe is on-screen when Bale, Foster, or even Peter Fonda--who nobody has ever argued is especially charismatic--come across as more engaging.
Mangold's Walk the Line made Johnny Cash's life pedestrian and was elevated only through his actors' performances, and he is wholly responsible for this mess, too. Yuma isn't horrible; it's a passable movie with a few powerful moments, especially the scenes between Dan and his son. It's just that Yuma is a horrible western, directed by a man who has apparently never watched an example of the genre from someone like John Ford or even Clint Eastwood. Mangold almost defiantly shuns westerns' classic wide and long shots. Most of Yuma is photographed in maddening closeups and medium shots, constantly filling the screen with faces--often ones you don't care about--and fast-moving bodies that blur together so that you never realize there's not much going on in the background or beyond the lines that were blatantly lifted from the original. In fact, original screenwriter Halsted Welles receives lead screenwriting credit here because so much of his dialogue--not to mention the outline of the story--is lifted directly from his script. Mangold unfortunately uses such dialogue out of context or forces it into scenes, producing too many of closeups of Crowe delivering lines that have lost their original heft while he looks so bored that you start yawning, too.
If Mangold was truly a western fan, he would have pulled the camera back a bit, showed New Mexico's wild desert, and maybe even turned one or two popular clichés, like the role of nasty lieutenant Prince, on their head by offering something unexpected. Instead, he just copies the popular perception of the American West--perfect for a modern audience that hasn't seen more than a handful of decent westerns in the past two decades. The real lovers of the genre will just groan.