Is the Western past its sell-by date? Sure, they still pop up on our screens every now and then, but when a new Western starring both Christian Bale and Russell Crowe barely limps into limited release in Japan some two years (!) after its U.S. release, well then it’s clear the genre is in trouble. Just ask Ed Harris, whose pet project “Appaloosa” remains unreleased here one year after opening in most other markets.
The problem isn’t necessarily quality. “3:10 to Yuma,” director James Mangold’s remake of the hard-boiled 1957 cowboy flick of the same name, is a slam-bang, action-packed ride into destiny, with both Bale and Crowe in top form, and a colorful supporting cast. It’s just that at this point a Western needs to have some kind of hook to gain attention, whether it’s painfully arty revisionism (“The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford”), a queering of the genre (“Brokeback Mountain”), or total ironic pastiche (“The Quick And The Dead.”)
Like Kevin Costner’s underrated “Open Range” (2003), “3:10 to Yuma” is just plain old classical Western storytelling wed to modern high-impact filmmaking. These movies aren’t a far cry from “High Noon” (1952) story-wise, but when a shotgun gets fired with a cannon-like impact, you’ll realize this is post-”Terminator” cinema.
It’s interesting to note that the U.S. box office remains fairly solid for this sort of film, but the foreign market has pretty much collapsed; one wonders whether the genre is just too old-fashioned in our age of digital-effects-driven blockbusters, or perhaps whether the presidency of George W. Bush — so very unpopular outside the U.S., and so often identified as “cowboy” — has soured the genre’s appeal.
That would be a shame, for “3:10 to Yuma” is a film that avoids the sort of macho Texan bluster Bush loved to indulge in, and instead goes for the very real consequences a man must weigh when picking up a weapon. Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a Civil War-vet with a bad leg from a war wound, a farm that’s wracked by drought, railwaymen looking to buy up his land, and a family to feed. Crowe plays ruthless outlaw Ben Wade, wanted for a string of murders and robberies committed by his gang; Wade doesn’t go out of his way to gun down anyone, but the same can’t be said for his gang, especially the psychotic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, in a flamboyantly evil portrayal).
When Wade is unexpectedly captured in a nearby town, Evans is one of a small group of bounty hunters hired by the Pinkerton detectives to escort Wade across Apache territory to a rendezvous with a train going to the federal prison at Yuma. It’s a dangerous job, since Wade’s gang is still on the loose, but Evans desperately needs the money; as he puts it, “I’ve been standin on one leg for three damn years waitin’ for God to do me a favor. And He ain’t listenin’.” So Evans mounts up and brings plenty of ammo; turns out he’ll need it. Wade’s gang is soon on their trail, and Evans’ problems are compounded when his teenage son, Will (Logan Lerman), turns up, determined to join the posse.
The film plays almost like a 19th-century version of “Heat,” with Wade and Evans on opposite sides of the law, but eventually learning to respect the other’s determination and personal code of honor. Bale brings a haunted, troubled look, and absolutely no bluster — entirely appropriate for a man who’s been through the horror of war. His son mistakes his dad for being a bit of a wuss, but Wade — warily looking for a chance to escape — notes well that when Evans does shoot, bodies fall.
Crowe keeps it under control — no flamboyant Jack Nicholson gestures from him here — with Wade’s lethality hidden behind some laid-back charm and dry humor. Crowe gives the air of a guy who’d be great fun to have a few drinks with, but good luck to you if you’re counting on his better instincts, which Evans will have to do by the film’s end.
One by one, as all the people escorting Wade are killed or slink away, only Evans is left determined to take him to that train. Wade starts playing head games with him, asking him what he’s risking his life for, offering him money to walk away . . . but Evans won’t walk, and he’s got his reasons, and an apocalyptic shootout ensues.
You could put Bale in latex body-armor, and Crowe in scary clown makeup, and make them both talk like Marlon Brando at the end of “Apocalypse Now,” and this film would probably have made crazy money at the box-office. But “3:10 to Yuma” hearkens back to pre-geek Hollywood, where stories of action and morality, bravery and cowardice, responsibility and judgment, didn’t need to be tarted up in juvenile fantasy. If that’s classicism, I’m buying.