With “3:10 to Yuma,” Director James Mangold has gripped the Western by its leathery bootstraps and shaken the dust from its grizzled, sun-baked hide. Leonine machismo and male bonding are forged into an action powerhouse driven by detailed character studies. It’s a technique that Michael Bay and his corporate advertisers-come-“filmmakers” have never understood: the bang is bigger when you give a s**t about who’s involved in the banging.
Based on the 1957 Glenn Ford original, this remake’s Elmore Leonard-penned story (adapted for the screen by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas) is sheer simplicity. Notorious 1800’s outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), the charismatic, black-hatted psychopath behind 22 robberies and $400,000 stolen greenbacks, is apprehended by Southern Railroad authorities. Desperate, impoverished rancher Dale Evans (Christian Bale) volunteers to transport Wade to a distant train stop, where the wary-eyed miscreant will be delivered to trial for his murderous misdeeds.
That’s it, plot-wise – stripped as clean and efficient as a desert cattle carcass picked clean by vultures.
But in this case… less is more. Wrapping “3:10 to Yuma” in such a sturdy, reliable framework, Mangold has time to build sensational, studied characterizations, brilliant pacing (courtesy Mike McCuster, who also edited the director’s previous effort, the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line”), and blistering action. One minute, a clique of gutless, small-town lawmen evaporates into crimson dust and bullet-holed Swiss cheese. The next moment, we observe a supposedly heartless outlaw completing thoughtful pencil sketches while cornered in a quiet hotel room. Mangold serves up brutality galore, but with a psychopath’s logic. After a grumpy bounty hunter accurately laments that he was spawned from a “w***e’s womb”, Wade throws him mercilessly off a cliff. “Even bad men love their mamas,” the offended outlaw proclaims.
“3:10 to Yuma” opens with fiery, yellow flames against nighttime black. Intent on stealing Evans’ land, greedy railroad honchos torch his horse barn as payback for tardy mortgage payments. Struggling to make ends meet, the financially strapped family man is looked down upon by his disappointed elder son. “I ain’t ever walking in your shoes,” insists 14-year old Will (Logan Lerman), who prefers the rebel spirit of Wild West dime novel villains to his father’s law-abiding, less profitable ways. In a subtle performance as Evans’ long-suffering spouse, Gretchen Moll suggests a wife quietly, honorably biting her lip to endure tough times. An ailing, TB-stricken younger child adds to the family’s stress.
After a tightly staged shootout between Wade’s posse and stoic Pinkertons (a private U.S. security guard and detective agency) defending an armored, cash-filled stagecoach, the slippery killer is captured. In an effort to regain respect and earn some quick cash, Evans volunteers to haul Wade across sagebrush, sand, and cactus-infested badlands – onto the Yuma train. From this crucial destination, Wade will be transported to a courtroom hearing and death by hanging. But the booby trap-laden trip proves to be no picnic.
Assisted by a dynamic motley crew of fellow gun toters, Evans begins his journey. Peter Fonda plays a crusty, morally hypocritical bounty hunter – anything but the “Easy Rider” he played in 1969. Taunting thug Tucker (Kevin Durand), all sweaty pink scalp and oversized teeth, is a schoolyard bully who happens to be on the side of the law. As the group treads across miles of rugged terrain, it faces the wrath of take-no-prisoners Apaches, vengeful railroaders digging treacherous train tunnels, and the always-lethal Wade. Ultimately, Evans and young son Will are left to complete the mission. With Wade’s ruthlessly efficient backup crew (including a scene-stealing Ben Foster as strangely effeminate second-in-command Charlie Prince) on their trail, the odds are against this decent father-son team.
What is it about Russell Crowe that makes him so charismatic? Perhaps it’s the frightening humor he injects into his roles. For “Gladiator,” he taunted his tormentors with a knowing stare and smile – couple together, his heavy eyelids and smirk seemed to hint, “F**k with me, and you’ll regret it.” He’s like a grinning death’s skull, suggesting that he might be down for the count, but he’ll eventually get the last laugh. Wade begins each conversation with a telling question. Then, he immediately hones in on the weaknesses sensed from across the table. The man is a manipulative groomer – able to find the Achilles heel of even his most guarded nemesis, or seduce the green-eyed woman of his choice (although, in a pinch, any eye color will suffice).
In “3:10 to Yuma,” however, Crowe’s captor isn’t a greedy, hateful scumbag like Commodus from “Gladiator” – he’s Evans, a noble, family farmer whose motives are entirely just. Wade knows this, and we know that he know this. Such insight explains Wade’s motivations. Scenes of Evans pushing his prisoner through ballistic gauntlets that the shackled outlaw could most certainly escape would be unbelievable, were it not for the knowledge that Wade is giving Evans a chance. Tormented by a grudging respect, Wade can’t quite bring himself to shoot this decent father.
As Evans, Bale is a stoic flag-waver for justice. “I’ve been waiting for God to do me a favor,’ Evans laments, “and he ain’t listening.” Collapsing under the strain of drought, unsympathetic debtors, and a resentful, dependent family, Bale still believes in decency and order. As viewers, we empathize. Set against a post-Civil War backdrop, the film saddles Evans with an additional albatross: he lost a leg while fighting for the North. The circumstances behind precisely how this physical debilitation occurred play a pivotal part in further explaining the unfortunate man’s angst and frustration.
“3:10 to Yuma” is that rarity – an action Western pushed into overdrive by its complicated, savvy characters. Until the film’s final minutes, we’re still guessing at the ultimate outcome. Mangold, who helmed “Cop Land,” “Girl, Interrupted,” and “Walk the Line,” has topped himself here. In a movie era of Mindless Bang for the Buck, Mangold proves that complex male bonding fuels a grander, more flamboyant filmic fireworks show.