It's tough to make a western nowadays. After all, we're in the age of AD--After Deadwood, that is, the epic and profane HBO series that started where Clint Eastwood left off with Unforgiven. Both uncovered the seamy underbelly of America's relatively recent history and defined the genre in the new millennium. The western has become the anti-western, meaning that though the violence may be exciting, it is ultimately tragic.
There are three big-budget westerns galloping toward theaters now, including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Outlaw Robert Ford, with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, and the Coen brothers' neo-western, No Country for Old Men. But both of those are riding slower horses, as James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma has beat them to the cineplex.
Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, the original, released in 1957, starred Van Heflin and Glenn Ford. This time, their roles are taken by two of today's hardest-working actors, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Sure, there's something ironic about an Australian and a Welshman playing old-time Americans, but let's face it, back then plenty of people out on the prairie were immigrants.
Bale is Dan Evans, a rancher who lost a leg in the Civil War and is on the verge of losing his spread. Already gone is the respect his wife (Gretchen Mol) and eldest son (Logan Lerman) once had for him. Out tracking down some cattle, he and his boys stumble upon bad Ben Wade (Crowe), who, along with his gang, has just taken a stagecoach and slaughtered most of the guys assigned to guard its cargo. Wade lets the rancher and his kin live, and later, after Wade's captured by the law, Evans signs on to deliver him to Contention, the town where they'll put the outlaw on the 3:10 train to the prison in Yuma. The question is whether Evans can survive the trip, which will be plagued by Apaches, Wade's gang and Wade himself, who is calm and charismatic but capable of lashing out in incredible fits of violence.
Crowe is thoroughly in his element here, having created an intelligent, dark-hearted outlaw who's artistic and quotes scripture in entirely appropriate moments. He prowls the plains like a big cat in search of its prey, entirely secure in his standing with the men around him, whether they're his captors or his supplicants. Yes, he's sly and manipulative and charming but also capable of compassion--he takes interest in Evans and his family's plight, leaving the audience wondering if he's sincere or just looking for a weakness to exploit. It's a meaty role, and Crowe slaughters it, cooks it bloody and rare over a campfire and devours it.
Bale is equally interesting as Evans, whose journey becomes less about claiming the $200 he needs to save his family farm and more about reclaiming his self-respect. The two develop a grudging respect for one another, and though it is the nature of films like this that one of them should die, it isn't clear until the final moments who that's going to be.
Director Mangold has always had a knack for casting films, and he enjoys another success with 3:10, adding Peter Fonda as a particularly crusty bounty hunter and allowing Ben Foster to truly relish the role of Charlie Prince, the psychopathic leader of Wade's followers. There are some occasional problems with pacing and too many scenes around the campfire (would you stop to rest if all those bad guys were on your tail?), and the film feels longer than it should, due perhaps to a rehashing of a scene in a hotel room between the two leads that was the turning point of the original. By the time we get there in this version, it feels like most of that ground has, literally, been covered, but the action sequences at the top and bottom of the picture tie it together nicely.
Call it an early entry into a subgenre--3:10 to Yuma is a thinking-person's western.