Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Resurrecting the western (and having fun doing it)


Nick and I ducked into the Downtown Grill just after 6 tonight. They'd moved the host table to the right side of the entrance. But we found it.

The server sat us upstairs. Nick could see three TVs. Still, nothing was on, he said.

All I got was the bar, Fox News on one TV and a view of a woman sitting across the way.

I got the better end of the deal.

Nick ordered a Coke and chicken fingers. I asked for a Blonde and a barbecue pizza.

But we weren't here to eat. Not really. We were going to the movies.

Regal Entertainment has built a big, nice, spiffy looking theater right smack dab in the middle of downtown. I didn't see a speck of dust anywhere. Even the bathrooms are top notch. I thought the automatic blow dryers were going to rip my skin right off my hands.

The film was "3:10 to Yuma," James Mangold's brilliant, mighty fine update of Delmer Daves' 1957 western classic. I said "finally" at the beginning of this blog because this -- finally -- is the movie I had convinced myself that Hollywood couldn't make anymore.

Oh, what a picture it is.

"Yuma" is the story of an outlaw, a likable, downright enigmatic outlaw, named Ben Wade. Played to perfection by the venerable Russell Crowe, you love Wade and hate him too -- sometimes all at the same time.

Wade is captured and sent to the town of Contention, where he has an appointment with the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is the poor farmer who signs on (the reason isn't as obvious as you might think) to help bring Wade to justice.

How cheap that synopsis sounds, though, because "3:10 to Yuma" isn't anywhere near a standard western. Oh, no. It throws all those cliches you've grown to know and love (or hate) on their ear. It's peppered with religious symbolism, ambiguous human motivation, drama, quiet reflection and a whole lot of other things.

At its heart, "Yuma" is Dan Evans's story. Evans essentially agrees to transport Wade to get the $200 reward the railroad offers him. His farm is drying up from a drought. A local magnate wants his land for the coming railroad. Evans has a wife, two sons -- one with TB -- and, as he says, is "tired of seeing my boys go hungry."

But, like a lot of foolish things people do, his motivation isn't so crystal clear. Evans sets off for Contention for deeper, darker reasons.

He's limping from one leg, lost in the war. But he's no hero. His oldest son William (Logan Lerman) doesn't respect him. Neither -- maybe -- does his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol).

No, friends, what Evans is really after is redemption, the desire to have his son look at him with pride, the chance, finally, to hold his head up.

It's Crowe, though, who has the real tour de force in this film. His Ben Wade is the most likable villain since, well, Glenn Ford's take on Ben Wade 50 years ago. Oh, he has fun. And, oh, is it indeed a joy to watch him act.

Bale, given a difficult, brooding part to play, is quite good too. So is young Lerman, who should have a long career ahead of him.

I ducked into the Riviera not believing this cast and crew could make me forget about the original "3:10 to Yuma." But guess what, y'all?

They did. Not only that, they've given me hope that both the western, and the thoughtful Hollywood movie, may not be dead after all.

"3:10 to Yuma" is now playing at theaters everywhere. It is rated R for violence, language, adult situations and gore.

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