Western Winner

Violent, nuanced and well-acted, '3:10 to Yuma' stands out in its cinematic genre

I've heard critics declare so many times, "The Western is back!"

I've always hated that. The saying worked back in the '80s, when films like Silverado and Pale Rider put actors back in the saddle after the genre was abandoned in the wake of Heaven's Gate, a mammoth box-office disaster at the time. And there have been great Westerns since, like Unforgiven, Open Range and last year's The Proposition. People have been making fine Westerns, but the public hasn't necessarily been flocking to them.

3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford film, has a chance to change that. Boasting a stellar cast that includes Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, this is a movie that immediately establishes itself as one of the top-tier Westerns of the last 20 years. Director James Mangold and cast do the genre proud.

Dan Evans (Bale), a lowly rancher who lost part of his leg in the Civil War, has fallen on hard times. Businessmen want to drive him and his family off their land, going so far as to burn down his farm. He's lost the respect of his older son, William (Logan Lerman), and his tired wife (Gretchen Mol), who no longer has faith in him.

Unbeknownst to them, he's going to get a chance to regain their respect.

While out rounding up cattle, Dan and his two boys witness a brutal stagecoach robbery perpetrated by the famous Ben Wade (Crowe, nailing the sinister part). Rather than kill the witnesses, Wade politely takes their horses so they can't pursue him, and he proceeds to the nearest town where he cavorts with a barmaid (Vinessa Shaw). But Wade's dalliance is a costly one, as Dan makes it back to town and assists locals in Wade's arrest.

For $200, Dan agrees to help escort Wade to a train station and put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he is to be imprisoned and eventually hanged--but Wade's gang of henchmen, led by the sadistic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), are going to do their best to see that this doesn't happen. Foster, an actor with a tendency to overdo it, finds the right balance with his portrayal of Prince. He's a crazed lapdog with an unhealthy attraction to his boss.

This is not your standard Western with one-dimensional good guys and bad guys. Dan Evans is a flawed character, with his motivations guided by money to pay off debt. Wade is a mixture of gentleman, crafty thief and psycho killer, a character who is constantly switching to the mode best suited to the situation at hand. Bale and Crowe relish the opportunities to square off psychologically, as well as physically, and the actors are at the top of their games.

Moral conflict doesn't just besiege the leads. Peter Fonda is excellent as a bounty hunter injured in Wade's stagecoach heist. He participates in the Wade escort and has a couple of verbal confrontations with the villain. At one point, Wade tells of an Indian massacre that perhaps paints Fonda's character as the most disgusting of the bunch.

Mangold and his crew have crafted a Western world that is a little dirty, yet majestic in a way that reminds of the great Western movies directed by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. There are times where the soundtrack evokes Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Everything culminates in a finale that is both rousing and shocking. Yuma doesn't hold back on the violence, and it has some shocking murder scenes. Don't take this one in if you are looking for something along the lines of the great John Ford Westerns. Mangold's take is a modern, bloody one that has more in common with HBO's Deadwood than Ford's Stagecoach.

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