How do you get an audience today to line up for that most traditional — some would say stodgy and irrelevant — of genres, the Western? It helps to pile on the good humor and the star power (Silverado), or to reconfigure the conflict of cowboys and Indians into a misty-eyed New Age lovefest (Dances With Wolves). In the case of 3:10 to Yuma, a sturdy and enjoyable remake of the 1957 minor classic (the original was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, and it has his affection for sleazy good-bad men), director James Mangold (Walk the Line) amps up the mayhem, going for his version of a Peckinpah frenzy. As the picture opens, an armored coach gets ambushed by a very wild bunch of outlaws, a scene that’s staged like the whiz-bang prelude to an urban action movie: the camera bouncing and jostling from a horseman’s-eye view, the bullets fired from everywhere, the Pinkerton agents who are guarding the coach’s payload leaping to unleash their fire with a primitive machine gun.
This is no tightly choreographed Old West shoot-out; it’s a fusillade of hot-lead chaos. Yet for all the sprayed metal on display, the violence in 3:10 to Yuma is really a come-on, a strategy to suck in sensation junkies. The film’s real duel is a psychological one, a shoot-out of values between two powerfully different men. There’s Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), the self-possessed outlaw who, having robbed that stagecoach, gets captured, almost as a fluke, by a nervous posse of small-town enforcers; and there’s Dan Evans (Christian Bale), the self-doubting, impoverished family man who, for $200, joins the posse to help deposit Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. That is, if Wade’s gang doesn’t catch up and kill everyone first.
Russell Crowe’s career may have hit a speed bump, but I’m still convinced he’s the star of our time. He makes masculine anger noble, investing it with the black-hat mystique of someone who has grown wise by doing ignoble things. It’s that saint/bruiser complexity that’s so commanding. Just look at Crowe’s eyes: The left one is steady, centered, square in intent, but the right one is all squinty, off-kilter attitude. As the deadly, elegant sharpshooter Wade, whom Glenn Ford played in the original with a dimply corporate lethality, Crowe carves out his own relaxed space, and then molds the movie to it. He makes the character an aesthete (he’s always sketching things), a Bible-quoting gentleman. He’s so courteous that at first you think he’s being ironically nice. Then you realize he means it. Wade has been a criminal for so long, and holds himself so far above ordinary folks, that he actually has pity for them. He doesn’t want to kill Evans, a debt-ridden rancher who lost part of his leg in the Civil War. He wants to escape by buying him off — and, in the process, giving the weaker man a taste of personal power. He’s a bow-lipped Nietzschean in a black vest.
Wade keeps taunting Evans, tempting him, and with each new offer the hollows in Evans’ cheeks seem to sink a little deeper. In the 1957 3:10 to Yuma, Evans was played by Van Heflin as a sad, disheveled lug — the battle between the two men was mythological — but 50 years later it’s a far more exotic thing in movies to bring a desperate working stiff to life, especially if you’re a high flier like Christian Bale. He makes Evans a real Method scraggle-puss: all scowling impotence and hardened pride, his eyeballs burning out of that gaunt face. What gives the story its kick is that Wade, the courtly sociopath, is free to do the things he thinks everyone secretly wants to do, whereas Evans, with a wife (Gretchen Mol) who has turned cool to him and a teenage son (Logan Lerman) who doesn’t respect him, is drowning in quiet misery. He’s honorable, but is he a man?
The original 3:10 to Yuma was a ticking-clock Western. Like High Noon or Rio Bravo, it was all sitting around in enclosed spaces waiting for the big showdown. The new version follows the old one fairly closely, but it pads close to half an hour onto it, adding a skirmish with Indians, goosing the action (ironically) by slowing down the story, giving a showboat role to Ben Foster as Wade’s feral, cracked right-hand gun. The climax, in which Evans drags Wade around buildings and across rooftops, firing at a dozen enemies at once, is genuinely exciting, but it also goes on forever, and given what a major point the movie makes of Evans’ ruined leg, it begs plausibility. This is how a Western today tries to give us more bang for the buck. By working this hard to be a crowd-pleaser, though, it may please fewer crowds. B