A good western need not be a complicated thing, and the plot for 3:10 to Yuma, director James Mangold's remake of the 1957 Elmore Leonard story, is simplicity itself. Troubled farmer and Civil War vet Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is finding the quiet life he wants with his family is harder to come by than the restitution the government owes him for his war-damaged leg. In seven days, the ruthless land owner whom Dan is in debt to will take his land and sell it to the railroad unless Dan can come up with some cash quickly.
Opportunity presents itself when Dan witnesses notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) robbing a Pinkerton-guarded stagecoach of a large stash of railroad lucre. When Wade ends up captured by the head Pinkerton (Peter Fonda) and a railyard dandy (Dallas Partridge), men are needed to replace the detectives Wade and his gang shot down. So, Dan signs on to ride with the posse to the next town over where they can put the crook on the next train to Yuma, where he'll be hanged.
That's really the long and short of it. Wade's gang, led by the highwayman's own obsessed fanboy Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), are going to try to save their boss' neck, and the good guys are determined to see the bandit RSVP to their necktie party. It's along the way that all sorts of complications happen, making sure pistols are fired, blood is shed, and the requisite thematic elements questioning the changing face of the Old West can have their proper airing.
Which, surprisingly, is the most interesting thing about 3:10 to Yuma. The action sequences are good, particularly the climactic gun battle, but they are also pretty standard. If anything, I'd have liked to see the shootouts have a little more zip to them. Mangold is almost too leisurely in his pacing, like he's stepped out for a nice afternoon constitutional and there is no reason to get all heated up about it. Also, the couple of instances of what look like computer generated explosions suggest a clumsiness I wouldn't have expected from the man who made Stallone credible again (Copland) and turned Joaquin Phoenix into a convincing facsimile of Johnny Cash (Walk the Line). Then again, those two examples show a good hand with actors and not necessarily any adeptness when it comes to action.
And it's the acting that best recommends 3:10 to Yuma. The meat of the script by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas is the moral tussle that occurs between family man Dan and hardened killer Wade. Over the course of the movie, through dialogue but more importantly through behavior, the two men begin to understand each other and find that their lifestyles actually intersect more than they think. At the end of the day, they both believe in something, even if the morality of their personal code may be questionable from the other's point of view. They believe in the individual and the rights of a man to take action, whereas the Pinkertons and railroad barons (and even Dan's landlord) only care about making money. They'll remove whomever is in their way to do that.
Bale continues to impress. Despite starring in two or three movies a year, he manages to keep finding fresh angles to approach these conflicted characters. Dan is trying to stand up and do what is right, but he can't shake the sense that it should be easier, that there shouldn't be so much standing in the way of making an honest living. His disagreements with Wade manifest as a battle for Dan's son (Logan Lerman), who is fascinated by the dark figure. In the teenaged boy's eyes, his father is meek and slow to act, whereas the criminal takes what is his, reacting with the speed of his shooting arm. For his part, Russell Crowe probably has the harder role. He needs to make a mean bully seem philosophical and sympathetic. I recently noted that it's been a while since Crowe has impressed me in a movie I've actually enjoyed, and right on the heels of that, 3:10 to Yuma comes along to make me eat my words.
The best choice Crowe made was to stay smart and steer clear of being showy. Wade has his moments of verbal dexterity, playing mind games on his captors to try to get them to drop their guard, and less careful actors would have gone all Hannibal Lecter with the role. Crowe makes Wade subtly charming. If I ever need reminding of what tremendous presence he has on screen, this movie will serve just fine. Crowe seems to barely lift a finger for the duration of the story, and yet he owns 3:10 to Yuma entirely. It's easy to see why Charlie Prince--who is well played by Foster, king of the screen wienies--is so devoted to his ringleader. Ben Wade is the man.
Though 3:10 to Yuma does start to drag in the middle quarter (scenes in a railroad camp, including a distracting Luke Wilson cameo, could have been trimmed), it more than keeps one interested in the other sections. Thankfully, it also sticks to its philosophical commitment even through the frenzied finale. Given how few Westerns we get anymore, and how when we do get a new one the filmmakers always seem hellbent on reinventing the genre yet again, it's nice to see something as old fashioned, and yet so resonant, as 3:10 to Yuma. As much as it was smart casting to sign Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, it was just as smart of them to agree to do it. Excellent turns by both of them make 3:10 to Yuma a matinee worth catching.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.