From the outset, director James Mangold’s (“Walk the Line”) latest film, “3:10 to Yuma,” has two strikes against it: it is a Western, a genre that has been dying a slow death over the past 25 years, and it is a remake. That it succeeds is a testament to the performances of the two leads, Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”) and Christian Bale (“Batman Begins”).
Crowe plays Ben Wade, notorious bank robber and vicious killer of men. The film begins with Wade and his motley gang of thugs waylaying a Railroad Company payroll coach guarded by Pinkertons (led by a grizzled Peter Fonda). In the process of pulling off this heist, Wade runs across Dan Evens (Bale), a one-legged rancher and former Union soldier who’s fallen on hard times. The two men part ways over steel-eyed glares, but as if guided by fate, they run into each other again later that day in town. This time, however, Wade is captured and is to be sent to the gallows at Yuma prison by train. Crushed by the growing realization that he is failing as both a husband and a father, Dan gives in to desperation and volunteers to escort Wade to the prison train for $200. Thus begins a journey of self discovery for both men.
Decent Westerns have been few and far between over the last quarter century. There have been a few tepid efforts, like the overrated “Tombstone” and somnambulant “Wyatt Earp,” balanced by a few good ones, like “Unforgiven” and “The Proposition.” “3:10 to Yuma” easily slides into this void. This is most certainly not a revisionist Western. Rather, “3:10 to Yuma” harkens back to the films of John Wayne and John Ford. The themes and motivations are clear-cut and basic: men doing what they feel they need to do to uphold what they feel is right against the backdrop of the wild frontier of the American West. But unlike the dark and dour efforts that have come to represent the genre, “3:10 to Yuma” is an upbeat and lively film. It has more in common with “Silverado” than with “High Plains Drifter.” Free of the lurid subject matter and garish violence of Leone’s seminal films and Eastwood’s faithful follow-ups, “3:10 to Yuma” puts the focus on its characters and their interactions. And to that end, Bale and Crowe are both at the top of their games.
Crowe is surprisingly reserved as the intellectual Wade. He plays Wade as a man who is beginning to regret the path he chose in life, but is not yet ready to admit to that. He surrounds himself with a rogue’s gallery of low-life trash out of necessity, but knows full well that he is light years better than any of them. By contrast, Bale plays Dan as a barely contained bundle of anguish and self doubt. His inability to provide for his family wears on him visibly, as does his fear that he’s losing the respect of his older son. The two men occupy opposing spheres in life, yet find themselves inexorably drawn to each other. The murderous Wade is the antithesis of everything Dan stands for, yet Dan can’t help but admire Wade’s conviction to his way of life. Similarly, Wade views Dan as a fool and a coward, yet soon realizes that Dan as the only man he can relate to on even terms and represents what he perhaps would have rather been.
Far too often when a film features two powerhouse actors, you get the feeling that it’s two egos doing battle for screen time. This is not the case here. Both actors approach their roles with conviction, complementing and building off of each other to great effect. Their efforts are supported by dialogue that is smart and witty and a supporting cast that is just off-kilter enough and peppered with barely recognizable character actors. The aforementioned Fonda is just right as the grizzled Pinkerton while Ben Foster (Angel in “X-Men 3″) is nasty as Wade’s trigger happy and flamboyantly homosexual henchman ‘Princess’ Charlie. Also, keep an eye out for a scummy looking Luke Wilson (“Blades of Glory”) about half way through.
There aren’t many criticisms I can level at this film. From a technical standpoint I suppose this is a fairly workmanlike effort. There are no crazy camera tricks and the special effects really aren’t. Those that have been desensitized by the epidemic of epileptic cameramen over the last two decades may even find “3:10 to Yuma” suspiciously lacking in stimulation. Additionally, the climactic shootout is rather clumsy and features changes in character motivation that strain credulity. Lastly, there’s the criticism that an American Western shouldn’t be made with foreign actors (Crowe is Kiwi-Aussie and Bale is Welsh). But quite frankly, these two do American better than most American actors could.
Nevertheless, the film’s pacing is tight and Mangold keeps the whole production in check with a sure hand. Strong performances by the leads and just enough action combine to keep the viewer engaged. “3:10 to Yuma” represents a successful return for the classic Western.
James Mangold (director) / Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas (screenplay), Elmore Leonard (short story)
CAST: Russell Crowe … Ben Wade
Christian Bale … Dan Evans
Logan Lerman … William Evans
Dallas Roberts … Grayson Butterfield
Ben Foster … Charlie Prince
Peter Fonda … Byron McElroy
Vinessa Shaw … Emmy Nelson