Monday, January 14, 2008

3:10 to Yuma

Ah, the Western.

What was once a staple in Hollywood has now been relegated to generic western entries such as American Outlaws and Texas Rangers. That isn't to say there haven't been some solid westerns of late, namely Open Range and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

So when the overly positive reviews for 3:10 to Yuma popped up upon its release, I took one look at the cast and said "I want to see that."

I didn't get to see it in theaters but I did manage to catch it on DVD recently. And the buzz was spot-on. This was a great neo-western film.

On paper, the recipe for success is all there. First, get James Mangold, director of Walk the Line, to direct another stellar cast made up of Christian Bale (who is arguably the hottest actor working today, and no I don't mean by looks), Russell Crowe (who's had a bit of a downturn in his career lately but seems to be bouncing back nicely) and Ben Foster (a young actor who is right there with Shia LaBeouf and Ryan Gosling as the next big thing).

Bale plays Dan Evans, a beaten down Civil War soldier with an artificial leg. The railroad wants his land, and the man who owns it is intending to sell, regardless of what Dan thinks. His son thinks his father is yella, and his wife secretly doubts his ability to stand up for his family as well.

Even worse, Dan's livestock has escaped their holding cell and have wandered half-way across the state. While he tries to round them up, Dan and his sons stumble across Ben Wade (Crowe) and his gang, including second-in-command, Charlie Prince (Foster), who've just knocked off a armored wagon filled with Uncle Sam's money. Wade is the kind of guy who will make you famous, but also seems to have morals, as loose as they may be. So he lets Dan and his sons go, but relieves them of their horses so Dan won't go running back to town, shouting about Wade's newfound riches.

Eventually, Ben and his crew wind up in Dan's town anyway, and Ben goes and gets himself caught when he shacks up with a bar maid. And when the law needs volunteers to get Ben Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, Dan volunteers, in need of the money that's being offered.

Along the way, Dan and Ben realize that they are each other's equal when it comes to values and morals, and even though Ben repeatedly admits to being no good, stating "doing good deeds would be contagious so I never did any". Meanwhile, Dan thinks that there might be something worth while in Ben and things get even worse when Dan's older son tags along, and appears to respect Ben Wade more than his dear old dad.

Eventually, Ben's gang catches up with Dan, and are hellbent in rescuing him. And although the script is vague with this notion, we begin to wonder where Charlie's desire to free Ben comes from. Is he secretly in love with Ben? Does he just look up to him as a father? Or is he just evil enough to believe that no one in their gang should be locked up, regardless of the crimes they've committed?

Up until the ending, 3:10 to Yuma manages to be slightly above average, and somewhat of a disappointment considering the talent involved with the film. Bale, one of my favorite actors, fails to inject Dan with anything that resonates with the viewer, besides just being a shade above pathetic. Crowe manages to create a nice balance of pathos and decency in Ben, but it's Foster who again steals the show with his psychotic portrayal of Charlie. Sadly, his screen time is limited.

However, the ending is tense and extended, which heightens the suspense even more. It's like the shootout in Heat, but at the end of the film where it should have been all along. And when the final frames roll, we're blown away with what we've just witnessed, asking ourselves if the heavy decision a character makes is believable. And the more one thinks about it, the more realistic it becomes.

3:10 to Yuma knows it has a good hand, holds it until the perfect moment, and then slaps it down on the table to the dismay of the rest of the players. The ending is a stunner, and makes the somewhat average proceedings all the worthwhile.

FILM SCORE: ***1/2 (out of ****)
BEST SCENE: Film's extended climax.
FILM STATUS: A classic neo-western that should help the genre's resurgence.

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