Unlike the South, the western does seem to rise again. And again and again and again. The genre has been pronounced dead more often than Generalissimo Francisco Franco on Saturday Night Live, but they keep making them. And despite the tendency of the Horse Opera to endlessly recycle plots, this is one of the few explicit remakes I can recall, save for the odd TV movie of the week.
3:10 to Yuma is a movie with its feet in two eras. It obviously exists in the postmodern, post-Unforgiven world where it’s impossible to return entirely to the innocent days of white hats versus black hats and “injuns,” but in terms of story and structure, this is very much a traditional western, tweaked only modestly for modern sensibilities.
Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is a ruthless train robber whose name inspires a lot of knee-trembling. He’s willing to kill at the drop of a hat but he’s also smarter than almost anyone in the picture, including his own gang, with a peculiar sense of decency.Not sharing that sense of decency is his number two guy, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), a sadistic killer whose devotion to Wade seems to go beyond mere loyalty.
Dan Evans (Christian Bale), on the other hand, is a destitute rancher, a one-legged Civil War veteran in debt up to his eyeballs and in danger of losing his land, the respect of his son, William (Logan Lerman), and his own self-respect along with it. Not only does his son hold him in contempt but his own wife (Gretchen Mol) seems to pity him. There are only so many body blows a man’s pride can take.
So when Wade is captured after robbing an armored stagecoach belonging to the Southern Pacific Railroad, it represents a chance for Dan to reclaim all the things he was in danger of losing. When the local Pinkerton man (Dallas Roberts) asks for help escorting Wade to the town of Contention to catch the prison train to Yuma, Dan agrees for the sum of $200. Also along are a Pinkerton bounty hunter (Peter Fonda) wounded in the original robbery, the doctor (Alan Tudyk) assigned to keep this man standing, one of the henchman of the robber baron who has been trying run Dan off his land and, against his father’s orders, William.
They have a few obstacles between them and the 3:10 to Yuma. Not only is Wade’s gang out to spring him, but more than a few people want the outlaw dead and the shortest route to Contention is through Apache territory.
Despite the large cast, this is very much a two-man show between Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Initially, Wade holds the rancher in as much contempt as the other man guarding him, but slowly starts to realize that this man is seemingly immune to both his threats and his bribes and develops more than a grudging respect for him. It’s here that Wade’s off-kilter sense of humanity kicks in. In a way, his attempts to intimidate or bribe Dan are acts of compassion, meant to get him out of harm’s way before the inevitable confrontation with Wade’s gang.
Both Crowe and Bale are superb in their roles (even if Crowe’s American accent isn’t 100% seamless), but that sort of begs a nagging question. Has the school of acting that runs from Brando through DeNiro down to Sean Penn so completely ruined the American actor that we have to look to England and Australia to cast our Westerns?
Also making a big impression are Ben Foster as Wade’s intense, charismatic right-hand man and Peter Fonda in a role that would have fit his father like a glove.
While not anything close to being a genre-redefining classic like Unforgiven, 3:10 to Yuma is a solid, efficiently-told tale, managing to be both modern and respectful of the traditions in which it follows.