When the original version of 3:10 to Yuma was released in 1957, the big marketing gimmick was "adult Westerns," as opposed to the simplistic good guy/bad guy shoot-'em-ups Hollywood had been cranking out since the silent era. The theory was that audiences had gotten sophisticated enough to appreciate a new kind of horse-opera hero: a man (or occasionally, a woman) who was big enough to have doubts about himself, and who was wrestling inner demons as well as plugging saddle tramps.
The Freudian oater never really took over after all, this was also the time of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Burt Lancaster, and the young Clint Eastwood but the first 3:10 to Yuma and relatively complex Westerns like it ushered in a brave new age of conflicted lawmen, antiheroes, attractive villains, and the strange notion that cowboy movies were free to reinvent themselves as psychological character studies (or romantic comedies, or films noirs) on horseback.
Fifty years later in 2007, Westerns no longer rule the box office, of course, but the adult-vs.-juvie Great Divide still looms on the horizon. Case in point, the James Mangold-Russell Crowe-Christian Bale remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Based on the original short story by Elmore Leonard as well as writer Halsted Welles' screen adaptation for original director Delmer Daves (starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin), the 2007 update would have blown a few minds in the late '50s with its pulpy violence, nasty repartee, and nervous camera work but all that is routine in contemporary actioners. Director Mangold (Walk the Line; Girl, Interrupted) is clearly reaching for the grown-up classics shelf with his tale of bum-legged, impoverished Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Bale) trying his best to deliver the captured notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) to the authorities on the train to Yuma against all odds.
In overhauling an antique genre piece no one particularly remembers, Mangold and his screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas made the choice to keep the original theme poor-but-honest homesteader vs. high-living crook while simultaneously amping up the many grotesqueries available in the Old West. So we get the 2007 version of a serious cowboy character study, with enough gushing blood and sweaty meanness to keep 'em hooting in the stalls, but the essential framework of a high-minded moral struggle. It works amazingly well, thanks mostly to the cast.
Crowe's Ben Wade comes across as Liberty Valance's sensitive younger brother who went to prep school but fell in with the wrong crowd. That is, he's the type of chap who spends his idle hours making pencil sketches in a notebook and quoting the Book of Proverbs while his myrmidons do most of the dirty work. Oh, Wade can rob a stagecoach and stab someone with the best of them, but he's learned to dispense charm and menace in equal quantities and fancies himself a man of the world, even if he shaves only once a week. Dressed in dandified shades of black, the gang leader can never resist scattering quips over the sagebrush. We can almost picture him at cocktails with Oscar Wilde. Crowe overdoes it a bit. Smooth-tongued Wade is a little too slick for comfort, propped up by lines such as "The day I die I'm gettin' sprung from hell." The story's tensest moments find him suppressing his boredom while his gang merrily loots and burns. He doesn't even look worried when he's getting electric shock torture (one of the film's stray anachronisms). Only a movie star could be that smug. Maybe if he stepped on a cat or something.
Compared to that elegant rascal, sad sack Dan Evans is in a hell of a fix. He, his repressed wife Alice (played by Gretchen Mol as someone just waiting for a better proposition), and their two young sons, living in a ranch house outside of Bisbee, are trapped between the archetypal land and cattle company combine and the coming of the railroad, with desperados like Ben Wade nipping at their heels. Evans seems destined to be crushed by the levers of 19th-century commerce. The gaunt, bearded Bale, looking as if he commuted from the set of Rescue Dawn, nevertheless invests the gammy-legged Civil War veteran (he fought for the North) with a scrap-iron dignity that nothing can shake. His best scenes are the ones in which Dan and Ben sit quietly, looking at a watch and waiting for the train, with Ben alternately taunting and tempting the self-righteous Dan, who's made it clear he's trying to collect the $200 bounty. Let me go for $400? How about $1,000? Hard-scrabble Dan needs the reward money badly. His family needs to eat. But he and his equally determined fourteen-year-old son Will (nicely played by Logan Lerman) have the advantage of integrity. And therein hangs the tale.
The deer, the antelope, and the character actors play their fool heads off in 3:10 to Yuma, starting with Ben Foster as snarling Wade henchman Charlie Prince (although his jacket and jeans are a tad too Santa Monica Boulevard) and Peter Fonda's tough old coot Byron McElroy, who goes from gut-shot to posse-ready in record time. Also good are Dallas Roberts as the citified Pinkerton agent Butterfield, Alan Tudyk as the town veterinarian, and Kevin Durand as a maniacally grinning posse member who won't shut up. And then there's the hatchet-faced bartender (George Mitchell) in the town of Contention he's only in one scene, but director Mangold takes care to cast even the bit parts with memorable faces. Very few annoying anachronisms here, outside of the aforementioned electric shocks and one or two saloon floozies with 21st-century demeanors.
In the long run, Dan and his son are the only ones playing it straight. We grow tired of Ben's cool pranksterism the only thing he doesn't do is sucker-punch a hotel clerk and everyone else is compromised, to say the least. Almost against our will, we find ourselves siding with the humorless crime victim who doesn't know when to quit. The "adult Western" payoff dovetails neatly with the "kiddie Western" thrills of exploding coaches and axe handles to the face, and 3:10 to Yuma discovers the last honest man in Arizona.
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