September 13, 2007

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3:10 to Yuma (R)
Beneath wide-brimmed hats and a layer of frontier dust, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe crackle with energy and restrained violence in 3:10 to Yuma, an excellent, gritty cowboy movie that is a remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford movie of the same name.

Dan Evans (Bale) is a Civil War vet with a chunk of his leg messing and a hardscrabble ranch. Heís been kicked around by life (bum leg, young son still suffering from his bout of tuberculosis) and by a local land owner, who has dammed up the water that used to flow through Danís land (leaving Dan with dry land and skinny cows) and to whom Dan owes money. But nothingís kicking Dan as hard as his oldest son William (Logan Lerman). Though a youngish teenager, William is downright dismissive of his father and seems to feel his old man lacks a backbone when it comes to standing up for the family and making sure they have a good life. Dan feels just bad enough about his familyís situation that rather than getting on his son for all that sass-back, he just sort of absorbs the blows.

One day while out rounding up the cattle that had been scattered when the money-lender burned Danís barn the night before (and we think credit companies are harsh now), Dan and his boys happen on a coach robbery. The infamous stage-coach robber Ben Wade (Crowe) is leading the men who have rather handily beat the Pinkertons charged with guarding the coachís contents ó bank notes headed to a local bank. For a man who has just coolly watched as his men killed all but one of the stagecoach passengers, Ben is downright courtly to Dan and his kids, telling them to get their cows and be on their way and to look for the horses (which he takes so they donít get any heroic ideas) on the road to town.

William seems further impressed by this and Dan further beaten down ó so much so that he heads to town actually intent on having a shotgun-facilitated conversation with the landowner whoís being so demanding. Instead, Dan runs into Ben Wade, rather relaxed after just having enjoyed some private time with the female bartender. Perhaps itís this afterglow that keeps Ben from catching on when Dan stalls him just long enough for the bank officials, surviving stagecoach Pinkerton Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) and local law enforcement to show up. Now that they have Ben in their custody they plan to take him to the train station for the 3:10 prison train to Yuma in a couple of days.

Those charged with this task realize that their band of about half a dozen ó including the local doc (Alan Tudyk), to keep the bullet-wound-having McElroy alive ó arenít nearly enough of an escort, especially with Ben Wadeís crew, led by his right-hand thug Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), waiting for an opportunity to pounce and free their leader. The men offer Dan ó who, after all, is there and has a gun ó $200 if he will help get Ben to the train station. Desperate to save his farm, Dan accepts.

Giddyup!

3:10 to Yuma is delightfully true to the Western formula. The good guy might be struggling through hard times but he canít be swayed from what is right, the bad guy wears a black hat and is a bit of a charming devil and the banter is sizzling like grease on a griddle. As part of an attempt to makes Benís crew think heís been taken off in another direction, the group keeps Ben at Danís ranch for dinner, with Ben winding up at the dinner table with the family. Danís wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) might not like having Ben there and might be afraid of him and his murderous reputation but that doesnít prevent her from, almost in spite of herself, getting drawn in just a bit by Benís smooth-talking. Later as they hit the trail, Ben and Dan verbally spar but also find themselves working together to beat some of the trials of the wilderness. They donít exactly become buddies, but we can see Ben slowly gain something like respect for Dan.

Crowe and Bale pull off this kind of uneasy chemistry perfectly. Both men play their emotions close to the vest with each other and yet both know what the other is and what his motivations are. Most of the movieís best scenes are focused on the two of them or on the two men and how the presence of Danís son changes the tone and stakes of a conversation. To a casual observer, the horses and the quick-draws might mask just how smart and well made this movie is but it takes real skill to get the dialogue, the performances and the direction just right so that we get the full Western effect without a hint of camp or irony. Like a really great comedy or action movie, it seems simple to pull off a good Western but, as with those other genres, Iíd argue itís probably harder to make a really fully developed Western than it is to slap a few clever lines into a story with social commentary and convince people itís an Important Dramatic Film.

3:10 to Yuma is exactly what you want in a Western while also offering so much more than one might expect in terms of skill and artistry. Can cowboys still grow up to be Oscar contenders? A

Rated R for violence and some language. Directed by James Mangold and written by Michael Brand, Derek Haas and Halstead Welles (who has the screenplay credit on the 1957 movie) from a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma is an hour and 57 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.