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3:10 to Yuma

A Compelling, if Flawed, Western

Despite the sporadic, often misguided efforts by Hollywood to revitalize the Western genre, the Western has all but disappeared from multiplexes over the last fifteen years. From the sixties onwards, fewer and fewer westerns were made and those that fit squarely into the "revisionist" mold, were increasingly violent, skeptical and cynical about the nation’s foundational myths.

By the late 80s, the Western genre was considered both a commercial and artistic dead end as even “revisionist” Westerns had nothing left to say. Only Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado or Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, both released in 1985, made an impression with critics and with genre fans. Most moviegoers, however, stayed away from anything remotely connected to the Western.

For fans of this genre, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), summed up the Western's thematic concerns with violence, the conflict between civilization and the wilderness, mythmaking, and the American frontier. Unforgiven's critical and box-office success meant, however, that the genre still had some life in it. A few forgettable westerns later, and the opposite seemed to be closer to the truth.

Fast forward fifteen years and yet another attempt to revive the genre, 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of a 1957 film -- helmed by journeyman director Delmer Daves (Broken Arrow, Dark Passage, Destination Tokyo) and based on a story by Elmore Leonard -- this time directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Identity, Girl, Interrupted) from a screenplay by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas.

On the brink of losing his land to an unscrupulous developer, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a rancher and Civil War veteran with a bad leg, volunteers to escort Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a notorious outlaw with a sizable bounty on his head, to Contention, Arizona to catch the 3:10 to Yuma prison train, in exchange for $200.

Evans’ wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol), supportive but coolly distant, fears for his safety. Evans’ oldest son, William (Logan Lerman), disgruntled with his father's inability to save their family from destitution, sees escorting Wade to the prison train as a grand adventure similar to the ones he’s read about in dime novels. Nominally led by a Pinkerton agent, Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), a group including Evans and William ride out with Wade as their prisoner.

Led by Wade’s obsessive, sadistic lieutenant, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), Wade’s men are hot on their trail. Prince feels a loyalty toward Wade that the other men don’t feel, but he pushes them forward nonetheless. The charismatic Wade, however, isn’t about to give in so easily. Using every rhetorical device available, he sets out to undermine his captors’ resolve in seeing him to the prison train, but he quickly focuses on Evans, who Wades sees as the weak link in the group. Wade offers Evans a bribe in exchange for letting him go. With his son at his side and Wade’s words in his hear, Evans’ struggles with his conscience, but instead of giving in, Evans’ motivations shift, from need to principle. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Wade begins to appreciate the life Evans has tried to create for himself and his family.

3:10 to Yuma has some problems story wise that keep it from being more than a well-directed genre effort with strong production values and charismatic star turns. Besides several plot holes (e.g., Evans’ on-again, off-again lameness), somehow moviegoers are expected to accept Wade’s potential for transformative change. Wade is depicted as a ruthless outlaw, but he’s softened by his love of nature, his way with charcoal and pad, his gentle way with women, and his growing distaste for the life he’s chosen.

Fifty years ago when genre expectations were decidedly different, Wade’s potential transformation may have been plausible. Today, it's not. Worse, though, is an unsatisfactory ending that asks us to shift sympathies between characters and smile at the light-hearted final shot. No thanks.

On the plus side, 3:10 to Yuma has almost everything moviegoers could want or expect from a Western: lush, outdoor cinematography, expertly executed set pieces, including several shootouts spread out across the movies's 117-running time, and riveting turns by Russell Crowe, charismatic as an outlaw with mixed motives, whose intense performance is a perfect fit for the desperate, tightly wound character he plays, and Ben Foster as a violent sadist with an unhealthy fixation with Wade, who practically steals every scene he’s in. Sadly, though, 3:10 to Yuma could have been the best Western since Unforgiven. If audiences see it as such, it is because the competition has been so thin since Unforgiven was released fifteen years ago.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars