Friday, May 2, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 5/2/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

3:10 to Yuma

I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a cowboy, and the closest thing to a western I enjoyed as a kid was probably Back to the Future Part III (and that was mainly because it had a cool time machine). Yet in recent years, the western has made a bit of a comeback – most notably with Kevin Costner’s extraordinary Open Range, one of the best films of 2003. James Mangold’s remake of 1957's 3:10 to Yuma (itself based on an Elmore Leonard story) isn’t quite as good as Open Range, but it’s darn close – and it continues the revival of the modern western as a fantastic genre for exploring great characters.

Let me be clear – this movie is its characters. The film centers on Dan Evans (Christian Bale in another fantastic performance), a down-on-his-luck rancher who lost a foot in the Civil War and now is struggling just to provide for his wife (Gretchen Mol) and two boys. His youngest (Ben Petry) idolizes him, but his older boy, 14-year-old William (Logan Lerman), sees his dad as weak and instead idolizes Ben Wade (Russell Crowe in a perfectly subtle and nuanced performance), a charismatic Jesse James-type outlaw who’s making life miserable for the local shippers. While out rounding up the herd, Dan and his boys witness Wade and his gang violently robbing a stagecoach, and Dan reports this to the local sheriff and gets Wade apprehended. Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), a railway tycoon for whom Wade has long been a thorn in the side, seeks to have an example made of him, and offers a handsome sum of money to anyone willing to transport Wade to the town of Contention, from where a train departs for Yuma prison. Seeing an opportunity to pay off his debts and save his ranch, Dan offers to go along for $200. He, Butterfield, a grizzled old security man with a hatred for Wade (Peter Fonda), a sadistic goon (Kevin Durand), and the local doctor (Alan Tudyk, who played Wash the pilot on the greatest television show ever made) set off with Wade for Contention, with William secretly following the group.

From here, one could possibly criticize the plot as being formulaic, but the plot really only exists to give us insight into these characters. The group is being tracked down by Wade’s gang of cold-blooded killers, led by the psychopathic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster in an Oscar-worthy supporting role). As the tension escalates, we see that Dan’s actually doing this for more than just the money and we wonder with William if the cool and collected Wade is really “all bad.” The final shootout (yeah, that’s kind of a spoiler, but really – it’s a western, so you know there’s gonna be a final shootout) is tense and engrossing, and the journey that culminates there has a lot to say about human nature and what it truly means to be a man. Director Mangold, who previously helmed the solid Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, stays largely out of the way of his superb cast, and composer Marco Beltrami (the Terminator franchise) likewise crafts a minimalist score that is haunting in its emotion without beating us over the head. I saw this one on the big screen last fall and again on DVD last week, and it holds up on repeat viewing as every bit as engrossing as it was the first time around. That’s evidence of relatable characters and a compelling narrative, and fans of both will find plenty to like as they sweat out the ride to Contention and dodge bullets to ensure that Ben Wade catches his ride to justice on the fateful 3:10. - **** (out of four)
3:10 to Yuma is rated R for violence and some language.

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