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By Mike Watt | January 21, 2008

I do not understand Hollywood’s love of remakes. Not in the slightest.

Americanizing Japanese horror aside, where the theory is that Americans hate and loathe and fear subtitles and therefore will not sit through foreign films no matter how many long-haired scary little girls there are, so we must add white faces and subtract every ounce of tension and creepiness. I’m talking about Tinseltown’s penchant for taking movies that were (usually) made perfectly fine the first time, “”updating” them for modern filmgoers and alienating the built-in audience the film already had by leeching away any feeling or subtlety the original offered.

The latest affront, at least to my eyes, was the “”greatest Western since Unforgiven“””or so says all the paid-off reviewers. I’m speaking of the bloated and empty remake of 3:10 to Yuma. And I’m in a very, very small minority of detractors here.

In the original film, Van Heflin played an honest rancher Dan Evans whose land is plagued by drought. He needs $200 to buy some water rights from a neighbor to save his crops and animals. Meanwhile, a dastardly villain named Ben Wade, played by Glen Ford going against his type, just robbed a stagecoach with his equally-hard-assed gang. But he dallies just a little too long with a barmaid and gets caught by the authorities. The marshal offers Evans $200 to make sure that Wade gets on the titular train where he will wind up in Yuma prison for his crimes. For the next hour or so, Wade gets to see the world through Evans’ eyes, even as he conspires to break free from his captor and even kill him if necessary. And yet, he sees, in Evans, the life he could have had, had he made different decisions along the way.

It’s a simple story, adapted from an even simpler, 10-page Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty) short story about a lawman doing his job by delivering Wade to the train. The original film is economical and yet pretty damned full for a movie that barely comes in with a 90-minute running time. But it’s one of those movies you have to pay attention to, so you can catch the nuance of performance and theme. Not a lot happens in the Heflin/Ford version, and yet, it’s taut and satisfying and exciting when it needs to be.

Now, before I go further, let me say that I like the original 3:10 to Yuma. It’s not my favorite movie of all time, but I appreciate its simplicity and economy. And thematically, it’s a terrific morality play.

The remake, however, was made by folks who weren’t satisfied, apparently. Instead of a story about a man doing the right thing at first, and another doing the right thing at last, the big, splashy expensive remakes gives us Christian Bale vs. Russell Crowe taking a road trip across harsh terrain while both do the stupidest things imaginable.

Bale, as Dan Evans, is a rancher whose land is plagued by drought. And two kids who have no regard for him””and an oldest son with outright hostility that should have gotten his teeth kicked in by the elder Evans, were this a real look at the West of the railroad age. He also lost a leg during the war””not that the prosthetic slows him down at any point in the film. In short, we get an Evans who is “”Little Christ on the Prairie”. And for the next two-plus hours, Wade and the screenwriters lead Jesus Evans to Golgotha to crucify him for all of our sins. (Our sins being paying for this nonsense.)

On the flip side, the dark side, we get a Ben Wade who shoots his own man to make a point, and would kill anyone who got in his way or didn’t laugh at one of his sardonic jokes. But the way Crowe plays him, you wouldn’t fear Wade for a second. He’s too amiable, too likable. He doesn’t come off as vicious. He comes off like a guy who just wants to drink a beer with you, maybe borrow your hedge clippers.

And while in the custody of Dan (and a local deputized veterinarian, a foul-mouthed Pinkerton agent””who is occasionally sporting a gut-shot wound””a representative of the railroad that Wade’s gang keeps thieving from, not to mention the eldest Evans a*****e kid) Wade has ample opportunities to escape, does occasionally, but keeps winding up back in Evans company, while the rest of the posse plays Saving Private Ryan the Western Version by getting themselves killed one-by-one throughout.

Wade is also a superhero in this version. He’s a quick-draw artist, a dead-eye shot, can take out three Apaches with only a knife while his hands are still cuffed, can overcome Pinkerton agents and inconsequential idiot characters played by Luke Wilson””never batting an eye. While Bale’s Evans mopes, fears, yearns and strives, but never really does much more than run and whine.

There are scenes lifted wholesale from the original, including a sequence where Wade and the barmaid realize they knew each other back East, in a different life, where he worked an honest job and she sang in a city saloon. Now they’re reunited for a brief time and worse for the wear of their lives. In the remake, this reunion seems like little more than a cheap come-on from Wade. And their dialogue””the way it’s delivered, they could be talking about anything. It isn’t a scene about “˜what could have been’ but “˜what can we do to fill up some time and let the law catch up to Wade’?

The point of the original completely lost in the remake is that Evans and Wade are not men cut from the same cloth. Evans is a man who constantly looks towards the future””if I do this, my family will survive another year. Wade always looks to the past””if I had only done this, if I hadn’t done that. Wade sees the life he could have had in Evans: a wife, a family, people who love him.

The director, James Mangold, says two things on the disc’s documentary that make utterly no sense. The first is that he didn’t want to repeat a bunch of Western clichés. He succeeded, in that he repeated all of them. The second, and the most unforgivable, is that he said: “”What I thought the original lacked was the journey.” In his mind, he overcame this lacking element by running Evans, Wade and the posse all over Arizona. Sure, but”¦ the original was all about a journey. The only difference is that the original’s journey was an internal journey. And internal journeys, I suppose, don’t translate to box office draw any more.

Again, I had no great love for the original until I saw the remake and what was done to the story. Where once there was a story about a man doing the right thing for the sake of his family, and a man doing the right thing in spite of his own nature, we get a man doing the right thing because of some divine mandate and a second man doing”¦ everything else for motivations completely lost in the morass of running, shooting, exploding and musical crescendos.

For ultimate proof that the creators of this remake were in service of themselves and not the story, let’s take a look at the line oft-repeated in the trailers. “”Just remember, your father is the man who took Ben Wade to that train when nobody else would.” This line is told to Evans oldest son, who is only at the end coming to respect his father. Any number of characters could have said this line to the boy and it would have felt appropriate and right. It is, after all, a great line, summing up the film.

It’s delivered, however, by Evans himself. His quiet dignity and moral foundation undercut by misappropriated dialogue. As much thought was given to the rest of the script. And that’s the tragedy of “”the greatest western since Unforgiven.”

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  1. Mike Watt says:

    “The film is excellent and most people feel it contains all the elements you say it lacks, including many critics that love the original. Its rated 89% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, One of the 250 best films of all time on IMDB, etc etc.” So, what you’re saying is because all of these people loved it, my opinion is incorrect? That’s like the old Volkswagon slogan, innit? “60,000 Germans can’t be wrong?” (Except for, oh, WWII?) I said in my opening paragraph that I was in the minority. And I don’t remember getting hysterical. I’m sorry if my disliking this movie attacked some core value of yours, Sam. Not my intention.

  2. Phil Hall says:

    Remakes don’t have to be inferior facsimiles — John Huston proved that with “The Maltese Falcon” and “Moby Dick” (both films had two earlier incarnations). And that’s the key — if you are remaking an earlier film that was lousy, you’ll do well. If you try to top a classic, forget it.

  3. Sam Fridek says:

    What a sad diatribe. None of what you say makes any sense, Mike. The movie is excellent and rife with internal conflict and psychological struggle, subtlety and implication. You are angry about something and it is visible in your hysteria. Saying something is idiotic doesn’t make it so. The film is excellent and most people feel it contains all the elements you say it lacks, including many critics that love the original. Its rated 89% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, One of the 250 best films of all time on IMDB, etc etc. Get a life and attack a movie where people are aiming for the gutter. This was hardly aimed at box office glory as the western is an impossible genre to get made. If Mangold was a w***e/hack he would have made “Transformers”. Why don’t you wise up and aim your invective at the real enemies of cinema?

  4. Felix Vasquez Jr. says:

    I loved this movie, but as always you make great points. I hate the obsession with remakes, too, but hey if people keep seeing them, Hollywood will keep making them.

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