Editor’s Note: The debut entry our Shine A Light series, in which the goal is to call attention to films that deserve a second look or just haven’t been seen by enough folks.
In anticipation of Logan, the final Wolverine film arriving in theaters, we’re taking a look back at two underrated films previously helmed by director James Mangold.
Written By: Daniel Kinsley
With only ten films since the mid 1990s, Mangold has managed to carve out a unique filmography. Moving easily between drama, romance, action, comedy, western, and biopic, if his name is not immediately recognizable, at least several of his films are. Films like Walk The Line and Girl Interrupted have certainly carved out a place in the history of the early aughts.
While much has been made in recent years regarding the takeover of franchise film-making, Mangold has been consistently anomalous in that regard. While few would peg him as an auteur filmmaker (one whose style would be as easily recognizable as a Tarantino or a Spielberg), his ability to turn studio fare into something more intimate has helped him become something more than a journeyman in the eyes of many film fans. * This is no better exemplified than by the duality in the films Cop Land and 3:10 To Yuma.
Sylvester Stallone has always had a strange relationship to his own success, as well his own baffling failures. In 1997, it could be argued that Sly was in a rut. Films like Judge Dredd and Daylight were creative misfires that have by and large been relegated to the realm of the forgotten. Then along came a sophomore director named James Mangold, and a film called Cop Land.
Cop Land is set in a small Jersey town opposite New York City. The town is home to a number of corrupt NYC police officers, whose shady dealings are largely overlooked by the local Sheriff, Freddy Heflin (Stallone). Freddy is intimated by the cops, but he also looks up to them. Due to a childhood injury that left him mostly deaf in one ear, Freddy was never able to rise above the position of the small town Sheriff. After an accidental death scandal rocks the NYPD and a young police officer goes missing, Freddy becomes drawn into the rising tension, forced to decide which side he’s on.
It may sound like typical Stallone bullshit, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The movie is quiet and thoughtful, and shockingly, so too is Freddy. Mangold had serious reservations about working with Stallone ** given his reputation, but it’s not hard to see why he was right to trust him. It’s easily one of Stallone’s best performances, and it’s not really like anything he’s done before or since. The violence, when it does arise, is not met with clever one liners and forgotten. This is the real world, and when the shit hits the fan, it feels consequential. After Die Hard revolutionized the action genre by showing that its heroes can be human beings, it’s wonderful to see things come full circle, with arguably the most invincible action hero of all playing an ordinary man who actually fears the violence set in motion by his actions.
In 2007, Christian Bale was in the midst of his meteoric rise to the A-list after Christopher Nolan reinvigorated Batman for mainstream audiences. Between suiting up again as the titular Dark Knight, Bale costarred with Russell Crowe in a remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford western, 3:10 To Yuma. To say that a western was an unusual choice for all involved would be a bit of an understatement. It had arguably been quite a time since a western penetrated the mainstream in any meaningful way, with classics like Tombstone and Unforgiven debuting over a decade before.
In 3:10 To Yuma, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is defined largely by his weaknesses. Evans is a Civil War veteran left with a bum leg and a farm he can’t afford. After the man he owes money to sets fire to his barn, it sets Evans and his two sons along a path that will lead them to infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Evans soon finds himself enlisted along with several other men to ensure delivery of Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma Territorial Prison.
Immediately, we understand that Wade is everything that Evans is not. He’s capable, he’s charming, and he does whatever the hell he pleases. Evans is unmoved by Wade’s charm because his moral compass is on the side of the law, but he is also not ignorant of the effect Wade has on his wife and two boys. In delivering Wade to Yuma, Evans sees an opportunity not only to be demonstrably capable and strong, but to make enough money to pay off his debts and preserve his family’s way of life. It is in essence a way for Evans to regain his sense of masculinity, and thus his sense of self.
In both films, its suggested that these men are made less by their shortcomings. Whether the text supports this notion may be up to the viewer, but it’s this writer’s impression that the answer is irrelevant. Both Evans and Freddy have some sense of believing it’s true, so it’s true. Through action, however, the self-doubt that plagues both characters is cast aside, as each finds themselves anew, though not without consequences. In both films, there is a sense of the inevitable playing out, with both Evans and Freddy developing varying degrees of fondness for the men they find themselves facing off against, each knowing it will have to end either in sacrificing their sense of morality (and with it, their identity) or blood.
Through this lens, it’s very easy to see why a storyteller like Mangold is drawn to the Wolverine character. Wolverine is at heart a reluctant hero, drawn into conflict by his sense of fighting for what is right. The fact that his comic origins include the ability to heal, it is easy to lend thematic (and dramatic) heft to the idea of what happens when those parts of his identity begin to fade. Who, and what, is left in its wake? That’s rich territory to mine.
Though neither of these films would go on to set the world on fire, this is far from a reflection of their quality. For one thing, both films boasted an absurdly deep bench of talent. While Yuma is led by the aforementioned Bale and Crowe, the supporting players include Peter Fonda, Ben Foster (whose intensity is perfectly utilized), and a young Logan Lerman. The cast of Cop Land is made up of genre stalwarts like Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Harvey Keitel.
In Mangold’s films, masculinity is not about being the strongest, or the fastest, or the bravest. It is about finding one’s self through action. It’s about carrying on in the face of time, fear, hurt, loss. In short, it’s about responsibility; choosing a moment to make a stand, and giving it everything you’ve got.
* This has at some point become a term of derision, but I don’t really think that’s fair. There are plenty of hired guns in Hollywood, but there are also plenty of directors like Mangold whose style is consistent but calls less attention to itself and therefore doesn’t really necessitate the “auteur” label
** Thanks to the great Priscilla Page for her recent interview with James Mangold, which offered some very interesting details about the director’s experience working with Stallone and also for planting the seed that gave way to this idea. You can read Part One of that interview here and Part Two here.