After the success of Walk the Line, director James Mangold tries to make 3:10 to Yuma a Western to end all Westerns. This is a strategy that’s been tried before (in 1969, for instance, in a little movie called Once Upon a Time in the West). If 3:10 is a hit, it will be because of the power of the Western theme itself, and not because of the social commentary and bric-a-brac with which Mangold loads this film.
Debt-harried, maimed Civil War vet Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is ranching an arid patch in southern Arizona. As the film begins, his barn is burned by regulators from the Southern Pacific railroad who want him to sell out his property. Evans doesn’t shoot the marauders, which seems like weakness to his chafing adolescent son Will (Logan Lerman), a 14-year-old intoxicated by dime novels. Evans has no room for adventure, though, with his youngest son gasping with tuberculosis. But then he has to face the disappointment of his weary wife Alice (maybe they should have found someone wearier than Gretchen Mol). Having to raise some money fast, Evans is forced to herd his scrawny cattle into town.
Nearby, the actual stuff of dime novels is playing out. The fearsome Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), armed with a pistol nicknamed “the Hand of God,” has engineered a robbery of the Wells Fargo stagecoach. His psycho lieutenant Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) helps to shoot the survivors. Among them is the hired gun Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), who was protecting the coach’s gold.
Evans and Will stumble onto the crime scene; Wade and his bandits help themselves to the rancher’s horses. Though gut-shot at close range, McElroy survives the attack. After a quick operation from the town’s veterinarian (Alan Tudyk of Serenity, droll as always), Evans aids in Wade’s capture.An unsteady posse heads out: one crippled, broken rancher; one bespectacled horse doctor; one high-handed weakling of a Southern Pacific executive (Dallas Roberts); and one wounded lawman. They escort Wade to the railhead at Contention, to ship him off on the 3:10 train to the territorial prison at Yuma. Wade’s armed and dangerous gang is at large, ready to spring him during the trip across the Apache-haunted open country.
Novelist Elmore Leonard’s story fueled the original version of this, a minor but efficient oater of 1957 in which Glenn Ford played the thoroughly evil robber and Van Heflin was the desperate rancher who helped round him up.
I interviewed Elmore Leonard once, and asked him why he’d stopped writing Westerns. Leonard said that, in his opinion, the Westerns dried up because of firepower itself. Once audiences had heard automatic weapons, they were less interested in six-shooters. Well, Mangold has that avenue covered, and the final shootout in 3:10 to Yuma is a 101-gun salute, with most of a plywood town of Contention getting splintered.
Just as Vietnam intruded into Westerns from 1965 to the early 1980s, so Mangold stirs in a bit of Iraq: an Abu Ghraib torture sequence and Evans’ disillusionment speech&–he lost his leg in a war that decided nothing and got paid chump-change from the government for the honor.All this is distracting enough, but there’s also too much identification build-up between the two protagonists; Wade is even shown as a Renaissance man, getting philosophical and doing little pencil sketches in between murders. Yet there’s enough of the basic pleasure of the Western so that much of 3:10 to Yuma works and certainly comes at the right time. This has been called the cinematic summer of “bromance” (to use Dave Carnie’s word to describe Knocked Up, Superbad, Chuck and Larry, etc.), and Crowe and Bale’s moral duel is a crowd-pleasing ending. Ultimately, the last line in 3:10 to Yuma ought to be the one Joanne Dru delivered in Red River: “Anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other.”
‘3:10 to Yuma’ opens everywhere on Friday, Sept. 7.
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