R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Weekend Warrior

So as I’d said in my previous column, Clint Eastwood has kind of hijacked the Bad Ass Cinema in the last few weeks. I’d started out wanting to talk about several different kinds of Westerns that I loved, and ended up just talking about Clint Eastwood Westerns instead. Well, somehow the tables have turned, and instead of following through on my progression and finally getting to Unforgiven , I just didn’t have time to watch and familiarize my self with it again.

One of the big reasons I didn’t get to it this week was that last weekend, when I would have gotten to watch it, my buddy Robert decided he wanted me to join him for a huge movie marathon of four flicks, one right after another, and that he would totally pay for it. This would take up my whole Saturday, and I had already gone to the movies on Friday night. Well, I relented and decided to test my endurance. We ended up going 2 for 4 on Saturday, but with Friday night’s film I at least ended up with a winning percentage.

Eastern Promises Starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Directed by David Cronenberg.

Now, I’m going to admit here and now that I’m not the biggest Cronenberg fan. I know this will catch the ire of some of my friends and colleagues (sorry ML), but honestly, I think its more that I haven’t seen enough of his work more than disliking the work that I have seen. In fact, I’ve only ever seen five of his films, and I actually like four of them (Dead Ringers, The Fly, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises), with only Spider leaving me cold as a film. I know the man has an interesting body of work, and I do plan in the future to really examine Cronenberg as a film maker, but as for now I really just went to go see Eastern Promises because of my admiration for Viggo Mortensen and A History of Violence.

I do find it very interesting that David Cronenberg seems to be dabbling in more accessible genres than he usually does, and Eastern Promises is a terrific example of this. On any level, the film is a great Gangster flick, as we get a terrific look at the workings of the Vory V Zakone, but the director still smartly keeps the proceedings small and personal. Much like Ridley Scott was able to do with Michael Douglas and the Yakuza in Black Rain, Cronenberg does an excellent job of opening up a new world to his viewer by letting an outsider become a surrogate for his audience.

All the cast here does top notch work. Naomi Watts is awesome as a midwife that gets in way over her head as she tries to get to the bottom of a mystery involving a young girl who dies in childbirth, leaving a diary behind. The diary is in Russian and to be able to translate it, she takes the diary to a local restaurant. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know that the Russian mob is actually in control of the establishment.

I really hope Eastern Promises is the second in a long line of films that David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen will work together. Mortensen once again just disappears into this role, though it’s not that hard to really believe him as a super bad ass gangster. What is also not surprising is just how likable he makes his Nikolai in this film, as Mortensen flawlessly infuses his character with humanity. This isn’t some superman with a Russian accent. Nikolai is the type of character the Harrison Ford used to play, a man that heeds the call for action, but doesn’t look for it. When the time comes though, he’ll rip your throat out if need be.

You may have already heard about the movie’s big fight scene, and as a man that likes to watch fight scenes, I’ll say it deserves its reputation. The scene is brutal and bloody, but not in ridiculous or cartoony way like the battle in House of Blue leaves in Kill Bill. This is hardcore, bruised knuckle fighting and Nikolai gets ripped to shreds in the process. The fight scene may be the most brutal piece of film making put on film all year.

The scene is the exception, not the rule to this film though. While there is plenty of violence and the threat of violence throughout Eastern Promises, what we really get is a taut drama about ordinary people that end up simply trying to save a child from what they perceive is real evil. This is a terrific piece of film making from Cronenberg that displays what kind of power he can really have over an audience. There is a scene of love towards the end of the picture that is one of the most convincing and authentic I’ve ever witnessed, but at the same time goes in wild directions that I wasn’t expecting at all.

So with Eastern Promises starting my weekend off in the right direction, I was ready for the Saturday marathon, no matter how crappy the movies would get, and boy would they got crappy. Thankfully, the morning started off with what I would consider the best film of the year.

3:10 to Yuma Starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
Directed by James Mangold

A few weeks back I was speaking to a friend of mine and was lamenting about the loss of the real big screen tough guy. At the time I was in the midst of watching a bunch of Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, and Clint Eastwood movies, and I asked my friends where these types of actors were anymore. I’m talking about the guy on screen that’s tough not because the movie says he is, but because you know in real life he’d kick your teeth in if you looked at him wrong.

These guys especially belonged in Westerns, bringing the wilderness to its knees while showing outlaws and brigands a thing or two about justice, all the while usually playing an outlaw themselves. I was thinking about that discussion after I watched Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma, and the realization came to me that my argument was suddenly moot. As if he were starring in his 30th Western instead of his second, Russell Crowe makes the genre his own and gives my favorite performance of the year so far.

The film, of course, is a remake of the 1957 movie of the same name, but it pales in comparison to this new version. While I like the previous film a lot, with Glenn Ford pulling in one of his most charismatic turns, the new film employs two of the best actors working today. As much as I love Russell Crowe as the outlaw Ben Wade, Christian Bale is nearly every bit as good in the thankless role of Dan Evans, the small time farmer that has to try and bring Wade to justice in order to be able to collect the reward and feed his family.

What I love about Bale’s performance is that he doesn’t seem overly noble, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon, instead he’s as “everyman” as is possible. He gets beat up a lot, and often he backs down when he’s confronted by others that would walk all over him, but you know that its all he has to give. This is what makes his moments of heroism in the film all the more important and impressive, like when he distracts Wade in a bar in order to help the authorities capture him.

Crowe’s Wade is the opposite, as he’s the most notorious criminal in the territory and the bane of the Union/Pacific railroad. Crowe never plays this role over the top, and he and Director Mangold create a terrific balance in which to make Wade dangerous, but still very likable. He’s a principled villain, and one that you don’t mind rooting for because Crowe gives him such screen charisma.

The thing is, to some degree the rock star criminal persona that he exudes is an act, hiding real feeling and needs underneath, but he can still back up his deadliness when he needs to. Again, there’s a real balance that has to happen with this role in making Wade a bad ass, but never taking him far enough that you really hate him. In fact, the exact opposite is true, as you end up loving him Wade more than anyone else in the film for his magnetism and just how authentic Crowe makes himself look.

I would be remiss if I also neglected to mention the role of Charlie Prince, Ben Wade’s henchman, played by Ben Foster. I love characters like this one; henchmen that come in and steal entire movies, like Go-Go Yubari in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 or Darth Maul. Charlie Prince is that sort of character. Dressed in a Confederate jacket and sporting two pistols, he looks like he came straight out of a Spaghetti Western and into the American countryside to reek havoc and that’s exactly what he does. This type of henchmen was always big in Samurai films and Bond flicks, but I don’t know that I’ve seen too many in Westerns before. Does anyone else know of any more characters like this? If so, let me know.

Back to the movie, it helps too that Mangold makes this movie an absolute blast to sit through. You see, I think Westerns are usually either really fun, like Silverado, or they’re really good, like The Proposition or Unforgiven. Rarely do Westerns manage to be both. You do get the exception here and there, like in the case of Stagecoach, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or to some degree The Outlaw Josey Wales. I would definitely put 3:10 to Yuma in the same category.

Those that like their Westerns chocked full of Action should get a big kick out of the movie, as we’re treated to a riveting opening Wagon chase, the awesome apocalyptic finale, and other big chases sprinkled throughout the movie. Smartly, I think Mangold stretches the films credibility to its limit by making the shootouts and chases as big as possible, but the movie never turns into Hard Boiled either. What Mangold does instead is find the movie’s emotional core by building up the movie’s climax by mixing action, drama, and music in way that would make Sergio Leone proud. Now I will say that I don’t think any film this entire year has gotten me as involved with it more than this film has, and that’s what takes it to the top of my list.

3:10 to Yuma manages to remind me about everything I’ve always loved about the Western. With its tough guy outlaw, proud farmer, big shootouts and very human drama, the movie is great on every level it aspires to be. Managing to be a solidly entertaining and dramatically sound Western is a feat that few in the genre have been able to accomplish and Mangold is able to pull it off here. While the director had actually kind of already done a test on this film by playing with several similar themes in his underrated Copland, here he hit’s a complete homerun.

Well I initially had planned on covering all five movies that I sat through last weekend, but I erroneously decided to cover the two best films of Friday and Saturday first and had enough to talk about to fill an entire column, but I’ll get to the other three next week. Until then