Reference DVD Review: 3:10 to Yuma, and DVD Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

3:10 to Yuma Lionsgate
Movie •••• Picture •••• Sound •••• Extras •••
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Warner
Movie ••• Picture •••• Sound •••½ Extras None

Nobody's calling 2007 the Year of the Western, but these two movies point to an unexpected renaissance of the form. In the case of 3:10 to Yuma, we're seeing the most thrilling Western since Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven 16 years ago. Credit must first go to Russell Crowe, who exudes rock-star charisma (and believability) as outlaw and folk hero Ben Wade, who is calm and thoughtful as lesser men struggle to deliver him to a train headed for prison. In contrast, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a moody and very long art film about an aging (at 34) gunfighter who can no longer stomach what his world has become. Brad Pitt is no Russell Crowe, and even the film's most inspired sequences are deflated by the constant, heavy-handed narration. Still, patience is duly rewarded in what eventually comes off as a truly original film.

Both movies are stunning in the richness of their visuals, despite their wildly divergent styles. And both are given the kind of sharp, vibrant DVD transfer they deserve. The sun-drenched 3:10 to Yuma shows the Southwest's rugged landscape and huge skies to great effect, when not zooming in on gunfights and the haggard faces behind them. Jesse James recalls no less than the great Days of Heaven in its breathtaking, deep-focus portraits of a flatter, more Midwestern terrain. Each DVD is beautiful enough to watch a second time with the sound muted.

Then again, as is so often the case, the 5.1 mixes here match the visuals in ambition and execution. Yuma is explosive in all the right places, and its directional cues enhance the action without calling attention to themselves. Jesse James dwells on its somber soundtrack, but it also comes through with rich ambient sonics that bring the outdoor footage to life.

Yuma director James Mangold's commentary is mostly by-the-numbers, as is the three-part documentary material. But the latter is rescued by a wonderful 13-minute segment that explains how the mythic outlaw gangs of the West evolved naturally from the ashes of the Civil War. Jesse James has no extras at all, which only left me wondering what sparked such an atypical Western.

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