Simultaneously a tough guy and a sap, a realist and a romantic, director Michael Mann has for decades now been making movies about what it means to be a man. He chooses to tell these stories in familiar settings, setting his fairly measured character studies in the kind of testosterone-soaked milieu that has been favored by a century of manly filmmakers. Mann has made movies about cops and robbers. There’s one about a cab driver and an assassin, one about a whistleblower and another about a great athlete. He’s even made a supernatural horror movie set among Nazis. But he keeps returning to the subject of heroes and villains, about the role-playing that takes place when good guys go head-to-head with bad guys, and about what happens when the line between antagonist and protagonist gets blurred.
SPOILERS FOR THE DARK KNIGHT ABOUND.
The funniest thing I’ve read all week is conservative author Andrew Klavan’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal comparing George W. Bush to Batman. It’s not that I dismiss the points Klavan makes about the movie’s deliberate reflection of war-on-terror politics, or even that I don’t sympathize with his clearly felt exasperation over the general dismalness of left-leaning message movies like In the Valley of Elah and Redacted. (Klavan doesn’t even bother to mention Lions for Lambs, which is probably the worst of last year’s lot.) But when Klavan writes, in all apparent seriousness, that there’s “no question … The Dark Knight … is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war,” it’s clear that he’s got no sense for what’s special about The Dark Knight — no feeling for its overwhelming grimness, no appreciation of the abject post-9/11 civilization it depicts, which is dominated by acts of savage violence and wanton fear and the chaos that spreads city-wide like a contagion when those elements are combined. What’s hilarious is Klavan’s effort to identify the most despairing summer blockbuster in memory — it could be the bleakest big-budget adventure since Blade Runner tanked on release near the dawn of the Reagan era — as a ringing endorsement of the current Washington establishment.
The western isn’t dead, exactly, but recent efforts in the genre have been self-conscious, driven either by an urge toward revisionism or an effort to recapture the epic sweep of the work of masters like John Ford or, for another generation, Sergio Leone. 3:10 to Yuma is refreshing because it doesn’t seem to have a nostalgic agenda. It’s an unflashy potboiler featuring stagecoaches and six-shooters, a wagonload of stolen gold, and a full complement of desperate men on both sides of the law. James Mangold is best known these days for directing Joachim Phoenix in Walk the Line, but 3:10 to Yuma has more in common with his earlier film Cop Land, which cast Sylvester Stallone as one good cop standing up to a whole bunch of bad ones. Christian Bale stars as Dan Evans, a destitute rancher who agrees to escort notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a prison train in exchange for a desperately needed cash bounty. Hardly a shot-for-shot remake of the Glenn Ford original, the new movie spends more time on the journey and less at the destination. It’s gritty and exciting, although the last action scene is outlandishly staged and Mangold can’t quite sell the dynamic that develops between the two leads. You can see Crowe struggling throughout to summon the eccentricity that would make his character more credible, and while Bale has the easier job it’s his smoldering, unwavering focus, played against Crowe’s pointed taunts and wisecracks, that makes 3:10 a pleasure to watch. B
This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.