Monday, March 10, 2008

Words Reduce The Hero: 3:10 To Yuma vs Eastern Promises

Elmore Leonard's very short story Three Ten To Yuma was a masterful exploration of an underpaid marshal's motivation to defy the odds (and death) and incarcerate an outlaw. After I posted this, I was curious to see what a Hollywood feature-length treatment of the story might look like. I would have preferred the 1957 original, but I had readier access to last year's big budget remake, so that's the one I watched.

It quickly became apparent the filmmakers' concern was not “What motivates a man?” but “What motivates a Hero?” The film is cluttered with comic book violence (dreary Frank Miller mode), but rather than embody or give lie to the dialog, the action serves mostly to distract from the dialog, the entirety of which is devoted to (yep) “What exactly is it that motivates ... a Hero?” Thus we get Russell Crowe as a Trickster Shamen, cajoling, tormenting and physically endangering the not-quite Hero (Christian Bale) until the novitiate finds it within himself to utter the magic words (a confession) that transforms the demon into personal ally. '07-3:10 is entirely the stuff of comic books, and the film is about as successful in what it does as most of the last two-dozen comic book movies have been.

Happily, the other half of my two-for-one rental was David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. After watching Cronenberg trip himself up with comic book banalities in A History Of Violence, I didn't hold out much hope for Eastern Promises, which on paper reads with the same broad strokes: a downy naif has unquestioningly absorbed the presumptions of liberal democracy, and thinks she can change the world by standing alone and speaking the truth to power. Running parallel to her story is that of a ronin-type figure who has insinuated himself inside the corridors of power, and realizes there is no justice without embracing the methods and mindset of the enemy you hate. Thankfully, Cronenberg doesn't take the “Chatty Cathy” approach to character development — we get to see the characters slowly unfold through actions that eventually make enough sense to keep the tension strung. This time Cronenberg isn't reinventing the wheel (The Fly) or attempting the impossible (Naked Lunch), he's delivering the goods — including one of the most harrowing, physically persuasive fight scenes I've seen in years (I was physically moving in my seat to avoid the blades). Eastern Promises is a taut, focused thriller that left me, well, thrilled. Hey, the 50/50 equation still holds!

Post-script: while watching EP I kept thinking back to Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, but couldn't put my finger on why that was (beyond the fact that both movies explore immigrant ties in present-day London). Turns out they were both written by the same guy: Steve Knight.


paul bowman said...

I only recently had a chance to see History of Violence. Had entirely forgotten your comments about it — thankfully, since my viewing would have been colored perhaps more than would've been helpful. But find now that they fit very well what I (rather less articulately) thought on sitting through it.

Heard Eastern Promises talked up on Fresh Air a while back, but after History of Violence have been inclined not to bother seeing it, if I have opportunity. Maybe this inclination was premature, though.

Whisky Prajer said...

After History I wasn't going to bother with EP, either, but I'm very glad I did. Cronenberg gets some first-rate performances from his principals, and the script by Knight is impressive. Knight also wrote Amazing Grace which was a far better movie than anyone had a right to expect -- again, thanks chiefly to the script. The guy is definitely on my radar, now.

DarkoV said...


Haven't seen Eastern Promises yet but did I did enjoy the comedic "History of Violence". Comedic? Yes! The last all-shall-die scene is so over the top that I assume Cronenburg was shooting (sorry!) for a comedy here.

Just saw In Bruges this past weekend in Philly. It's one of those "small" pictures that don't make it down to the sticks of Delaware. Highly recommended; the ELW thought there were so many references to "The Third Man" that she expected the Jabba-ish figure of Orson Welles to come lurking from withint the shadows. Oh, and the connections to Christianity, Madonna, Guilt? It's almost religious in its subliminals. Ralph Fiennes is excellent in a surprising Ben Kingsley-ish Sexy Beast sort of way.
Brendan Gleeson is his usual great presence and Colin Farrell is a total surprise.

A peculiar movie

Whisky Prajer said...

If you thought the closing show-down of AHOV was a hoot, I recommend a quick visit to the loo before you watch the closing scenes of 3:10, or will surely soil your drawers from laughter. Here, too, one suspects a boardroom meeting of writers who were rolling on the floor and holding their sides as they pondered their own absurdities. The gang of thugs intent on springing their leader literally pays off an entire town to scrag the hapless marshal the second he steps foot outside the hotel.

WRITER 1: Oh ... oh my ... (clears tears from his cheeks) ... hoo, boy! Alright, seriously: if we pay off the town, how do we get the cowboy out the door?

WRITER 2: Um ... slip him out the back?

(Room erupts) etc.

DarkoV said...

Yeah, WP, the latest version of 3:10 was a haute hoot deluxe. I agree with you! I wanted to watch it a second time just so I could count the bullets being fired out of the main characters' guns. Seems they were specially engineered pistols as it seems 20-30 bullets came streaming forth.
Admission here: I enjoyed the movie as Mr. Crowe seemed to especially enjoy chewing up the scenery and it was enjoyable seeing how far he'd go.
And that lunatic sidekick of his, swooning whenever Crowe was around? The only other over-the-top thing he could have done was to wear a clingy little number while he was knocking off the local help.

paul bowman said...

For that matter, even the opener to History of Violence is highly comedic. I'm not sure Cronenberg doesn't want you to be laughing even as the younger thug puts his finger to his lips and shoots the little girl in the face at that scene's close. Ed Harris's one-eye character is a riot. And by the end you've got William Hurt fully in SNL-sketch laugh-along-with-the-audience mode.

The only characters who never seem in on the fun, really, are Mortenson & the wife & kiddies. (They had to be fighting it back during that sex in the stairs scene, though.)

I don't know. I did laugh plenty, but that doesn't pull it together for me. It's as though Cronenberg et al. want to deny you a place for the response of any sentiment that you'd have a name for — high, middle, or low. If after all that spectacle the net result is just supposed to be a bit of a creased brow and that's all the story he's got to tell me, well, okay. But I can't say I'd watch it twice, even for the laffs.

Whisky Prajer said...

Maybe if Crowe's leering sweetie had donned the cheerleader outfit from AHOV, we could have had the best of both worlds?

But perhaps it's time to introduce just a dash of seriousness to all this frivolity: I still think AHOV suffers because Cronenberg took a serious misstep early in the movie, and just kept going. This is only a problem insofar as he is capable of delivering the sort of entertainment I don't mind paying a buck to see (EP being just such a movie).

As for the jokers responsible for 3:10, the jury is out. Say, isn't it about time someone tried to resurrect the Chicago gangster flick, a la The Untouchables?