3:10 to Yuma
Western remake heads down familiar trail
By Devin D. O’Leary
3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold
Cast: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster
Based on a rip-snortin’ Elmore Leonard short story and originally shot in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma is the latest movie to get loaded aboard the Hollywood-remake train. At least this one goes first class with a quality director (James Mangold, hot off Oscar winner Walk the Line) and an A-list cast (Christian Bale and Russell Crowe topping it off). The only major drawback is the unavoidable fact that it’s a Western—a genre that’s more or less been in a coma since the late ’50s.
Sure, there have been periodic flashes of life—1985’s Silverado, 1992’s Unforgiven—but none has been strong enough to spur a trend. The problem is Hollywood made uncounted thousands of Westerns back in the day, effectively exploring the genre to death. Hell, Tom Mix shot between 25 and 30 of the damn things right here in New Mexico between 1915 and 1916. What is there left to say about cowboys and Indians that hasn’t been said a hundred times already?
Nonetheless, Wild West enthusiasts who do brave the theater to check out 3:10 to Yuma are likely to find themselves suitably entertained. Mangold and crew have done a credible job creating an old-fashioned Western shoot-’em-up. Solid as it is, though, 3:10 to Yuma doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t add much to the genre (comedy in the case of Silverado, revisionist thinking in the case of Unforgiven), and that isn’t going to help it break out of the pack in today’s overstimulated marketplace.
Christian Bale (keeping busy between Batman movies) takes over for Van Heflin as Dan Evans, a humble Arizona rancher trying to keep his family afloat in the post-Civil War West. This is no small task, given the ongoing drought and a barn-burning banker to whom Dan owes his soul plus interest. One day, Dan and his two young boys cross paths with legendary outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, inheriting Glenn Ford’s role). Wade and his gang have just robbed a heavily armored stagecoach flush with railroad money. Ben lets Dan and his sons live, seeing as how they pose no threat to him. Later, however, Ben gets nabbed by the local constabulary in an ill-timed bit of post-coital malingering at the local saloon. Ironically, Dan happens to be there and accepts a temporary job working for the poorly staffed local authorities helping escort the handcuffed Mr. Wade to the titular prison train.
Together with a wounded Pinkerton detective (Peter Fonda, looking good and grizzled), a timid veterinarian (Alan Tudyk, Death at a Funeral) and a couple of railroad agents, Dan sets out across the Arizona desert hoping to avoid Ben’s angry gang of outlaws. Along the way, Crowe’s charming gunslinger looks for assorted ways in which to manipulate his captors and make good his escape.
The script is largely episodic, providing Dan and crew plenty of random obstacles to overcome along the trail (including that most cherished of Western tropes, the rampaging Apaches). Mangold fills these encounters with plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’ action. The opening stagecoach robbery, for example, is some mighty blood-pumping cinema. The film’s ticking clock element, a nice nod to High Noon, also ratchets up the intensity.
The actors, top of the cast to bottom, are quite good in their roles. Bale spends most of his time exploring the idea of cowardice (another nod to High Noon?). Seems he was a Union soldier who lost a leg in the Civil War. Now, he’s unable to stand up to the bullies who are draining his family dry. In delivering Ben Wade to justice, maybe he’s just looking for a way to prove his manhood in front of his disappointed sons. Bale excels in alternately weak/strong roles like this. Crowe, meanwhile, employs his charisma in full force as the Bible-quoting bandit—although a little more menace might have been nice. The script does require viewers to sympathize with both of its main characters by film’s end, and paints Crowe’s character in what is probably too likable a light. “I’m a very bad man,” declares Ben Wade, though there’s very little evidence of it on hand.
There are moments when the plot creaks a bit too loudly. Dan’s son (Logan Lerman from the short-lived “Jack & Bobby”) provides a bit of deus ex machina, not once but twice by appearing out of nowhere and saving the day after he’s been told to go home. Also, there’s no particularly good reason why the lawmen don’t just plug a bullet into Ben Wade—especially after he’s pulled his second or third Hannibal Lecter, bumping off his captors in assorted inventive ways. Despite a few bumpy patches, the script for 3:10 to Yuma is packed with smart dialogue and goes to great lengths to explore the dynamic between Bale’s struggling father and Crowe’s confident criminal. It is, at the end of the day, a very good Western. Too bad it’s not a great Western. I get the feeling that’s what it needed to be.
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