If James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma can’t generate life into that most moribund of genres, the western film, then it’s probably time to consign the idea of westerns to Boot Hill and be done with it. The last time there was a serious attempt at a western—those “cute boys with big guns” personality-vehicles like American Outlaws (2001) and Texas Rangers (2001) don’t count—was Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003), a film good enough that I thought (wrongly, as it turned out) it might revitalize the genre. Mangold’s film is better, and if it can’t do it, I doubt it can be done.
3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 Delmer Daves film of the same title (based on an Elmore Leonard short story), and this is one of those few instances where the remake is better than the original. In large part, this is due to the fact that the 1957 film wasn’t a lot more than “just another western” turned out at a time when westerns were a staple product. It was an unpretentious 92-minutes worth of movie with minor illusions of being the next High Noon (1952). The plot virtually remains unchanged in the new film, although with less romance and a significantly different ending. The new version is the better film because at his best, Mangold is simply a better filmmaker than Daves, and Mangold is at his best here.
The story is basic western material. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a down-on-his-luck rancher in Arizona. An ex-Union soldier with part of one leg gone, Evans finds himself with a wife, two kids, a failing farm and debts he can’t meet. When the chance comes to make a quick $200 by helping escort local bad man Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the train of the title—the one that will take him to prison in Yuma—he jumps on it, regardless of the high risk generated by the fact that Wade’s gang is determined to reclaim their leader.
From this, Mangold has crafted a revisionist western that doesn’t at first seem like a revisionist western. In fact, he’s made a western that plays straight till you realize that it’s questioning whether or not the whole macho-posturing, western-heroes-and-villains approach is anything more than an elaborate, deadly game of boys playing cowboy. The surprisingly layered story is ultimately an exercise in futility where only one of the participants, Wade, understands that it is a game—at least as far as he’s concerned. Wade’s claim that he likes “to do things the simple way” is hardly borne out by the film’s climax.
The results are a frequently bitter film noir western with unusually well-defined characters and some fine performances, especially from Russell Crowe. Crowe here justifies his frequently overblown reputation with his portrayal of Ben Wade. Wade is just the sort of larger than life creation that suits Crowe’s talents. Wade is presented as a Wild West criminal mastermind: a combination of Prof. Moriarty, Dr. Mabuse and Fu Manchu on horseback with a six-shooter. He’s deadly, ruthless, completely amoral, and yet possessed of a charm and charisma that make him the most appealing character in the film—and that makes him all the more deadly. He alone seems to understand the rampant injustice of the West and the fact that the railroad doesn’t care that he’s a multiple murderer, only that he’s cost them money. The true irony is that it takes the encounters with Wade to turn the glum Dan Evans into a likeable human being.
The whole cast is on their game here, particularly Peter Fonda as a cynical Pinkerton man and Ben Foster as Wade’s clearly psychotic right-hand man, Charlie Prince. Foster gives a chilling performance, underlined with a complex subtext that suggests Prince is completely fixated on his boss. The storyline is compelling and the action beautifully—if not always believably—staged throughout. Mangold’s extremely non-prettified vision of the Old West as a ramshackle world where law and order is merely a vague illusion and where the destinies of many are at the whim of a chosen few has an authentic feel, leaving only the magnificent landscape as a testimony to the traditional grandeur of the genre. If the western is dead, this is a beautiful eulogy. Rated R for violence and some language.