Film Review – 3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma        3 stars
Starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Alan Tudyk, Peter Fonda and Gretchen Mol. Directed by James Mangold. Released by Lionsgate. Rated R; 1:57.

“3:10 to Yuma” rubs the grit back into action movies. After a summer of CGI-fueled fight scenes where even John McClane upgraded to superhero powers, this Western brings gunplay back down to earth.
Critics may claim Hollywood’s occasional release of a Western into the multiplexes is just a post-mortem convulsion for a genre that died long ago. But “3:10 to Yuma” argues that the Western fills a gap for action-movie junkies who are tired of comic-book adaptations, fantasy epics or tongue-in-cheek bloodbaths such as “Shoot ’Em Up.”

While “The Bourne Ultimatum” is one of the best action movies in recent years, its frenzied chase scenes primarily center on hand-to-hand combat and vehicular pursuits. Crisply shot and edited shootouts have been generally MIA from the multiplexes, with the rare exceptions of the superb “Spartan” (2004), “Open Range” (2003) and “Way of the Gun” (2000).

None of the action scenes in “3:10 to Yuma” rank with the achievements of those three films, but director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) stages gun fights with the discipline of a classicist like John Ford. You know whose guns are firing the bullets and where every potential sniper is waiting. Mangold also realizes that the violence in Westerns is dramatically powerful because it is rooted in a hero’s hardscrabble struggle for survival. This unfashionable attention to old-school craftsmanship and character makes “3:10 to Yuma” seem almost unconventional even as it stays within the genre’s confines.  

The movie is a remake of the 1957 film of the same name that was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. The threadbare story has a pulpy hook that is characteristic of a dime Western: down-and-out rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) has to transport notorious criminal Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a train and avoid getting gunned down by the bad guy’s crew.

The simplistic plotting of Westerns gives plenty of breathing room for the genre to prod themes of morality and honor. While histrionic displays of emotion are a common way to grab Oscar nominations, the two leads and director Mangold are smart enough to realize that in Westerns, the more taciturn and understated a character, the more compelling he is.

Crowe and Bale deliver lived-in, intelligent performances. Wade has a tiresome proclivity for quoting from the Book of Proverbs, but Crowe crafts his lines with the slyness of a man who knows how to dismantle his opponent psychologically. “Your conscience is sensitive, Dan. I don’t think it’s my favorite part of you,” he tells Bale’s demoralized father and husband. Bale, one of the most exciting actors working today, plays a character whose moral strength is undercut by Wade’s intellectual and physical dominance.

Mangold is more journeyman director than auteur here, keeping the focus on the talents of Crowe and Bale. But that’s OK — there is no reason for “3:10 to Yuma” to try to reinvent the genre. It  achieves something significant in its own right: showing why the Western is still relevant.