A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and in 3:10 to Yuma, filmmaker James Mangold rides hell for leather to rescue the Western. Once inescapable at the box office, the old-fashioned oater has sunk into obscurity, despite the efforts of films such as Ron Howard's The Missing to resuscitate it. Even the rare hits, such as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, tend to be "anti-Westerns" that harshly undermine the frontier mythos and, by extension, the American image.
With 3:10 to Yuma, Mangold (Walk the Line) wants to revive the Western without "revising" it. The film has its own history, originating with a 1953 Elmore Leonard short story published in Dime Western magazine and first released in 1957 with Glenn Ford. Mangold's remake includes some unforgiving portrayals of heartless capitalism, but mostly 3:10 to Yuma revels in the thrills of six guns, horses and actors as rugged as the landscape.
Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, an Arizona rancher and Civil War veteran with a wooden leg. Deeply in debt on a failing ranch, Dan worries as much that he's losing his land as he's losing the respect of his oldest son, William (Logan Lerman). William has a romanticized notion of "men of action" and, in the film's first shot, reads a pulp novel about outlaws by the light of a match.
By coincidence, Dan and his son stumble across the bloody aftermath of a brazen stagecoach robbery, led by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), leader of a vicious gang of desperados. Dan's and Ben's paths cross in juicy confrontations that combine high tension and gallows humor. When small-town lawmen get the drop on Ben, Dan offers to join the police escort to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Dan sees the $200 payday as the only way to save his ranch, even though Ben and his gang's fluency with violence make the job a possible death sentence. For Dan, upholding public justice dovetails with self-interest, or so it seems.
After a brief, diversionary stopover at the Evans' ranch, in which Ben proves sinister and seductive at the dinner table, 3:10 to Yuma turns into an irresistible, small-scale epic crossing the Southwestern badlands. Dan's fellow lawmen and reluctant volunteers meet grisly ends until, inevitably, the rancher must stand alone. Many of the character actors would perfectly fit one of John Ford's ensembles, and I was startled to realize that one grizzled, smoldering lawman was Peter Fonda, showing his acting chops after self-parodying turns in Ghost Rider and Wild Hogs earlier this year. Lerman excels in a potentially annoying role as a young man vacillating between two father figures, while Alan Tudyk and Dallas Roberts offer superb turns as, respectively, a comic-relief veterinarian and a bloodless railroad man.
The leading actors, in turn, prove to be natural leaders in the film by finding the subtle touches in archetypal Western roles. The film never lets you forget that Ben's an unrepentant murderer, but Crowe subtly conveys the prickings of his conscience and respect for Dan, even though his dialogue seldom tips his hand. Bale, meanwhile, isn't about to let Crowe's charismatic outlaw steal the movie from him, and 3:10 to Yuma offers the rare film in which the upstanding hero is as compelling as the villain. When Dan smiles at Ben's attempt to bribe him late in the film, Bale seems to be laughing at all the bitter ironies of the human condition.
3:10 to Yuma suffers from some unconvincing aspects, such as Ben Foster's tedious overacting as Ben Wade's trigger-happy right-hand man, and a conspicuous, yellow-toothed celebrity cameo. Otherwise, the film avoids the Young Guns quality of movie stars playing cowboys. The talk is tough ("Make sure every weapon we got is shoot-ready"), and the action scenes put the audience into the middle of the ambushes and shoot-outs. You don't even mind how much the last act derives from High Noon, with its ticking countdown and imagery of lonely integrity. 3:10 to Yuma, like Ben Wade, knows how to steal with panache.