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Bale, Crowe cause mayhem on the 3:10 to Yuma

by Glen Baity

After three seasons of HBO’s “Deadwood” it became hard to imagine an Old West without Al Swearingen. I’ll admit that I never fell head over heels for westerns in general, but I spent a long time hanging on Ian McShane’s every mean-as-hell word, so it was surprisingly difficult to get back in the saddle after the anticlimactic end to David Milch’s masterful series last year.

Where 3:10 to Yuma fits in with the genre as a whole is a question I’ll leave to those more familiar with westerns than I am. As a more or less average moviegoer who loves a simple, suspenseful yarn, I can say that 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of Delmar Daves’ film of the same name, makes for a ripping good time from the first second to the last. By the end, I had all but forgotten about the unsatisfying conclusion to George Hearst’s reign of terror in the Black Hills.

Yuma’s story involves Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-and-out rancher who volunteers for a team that will accompany captured bank robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a train bound for prison in Yuma, Ariz.

The way, of course, is fraught with peril. Wade’s gang, led by nutjob second banana Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), is in hot pursuit, necessitating a shortcut through hostile Indian territory; then there’s wily Wade himself, as experienced at escaping captivity as he is at robbing and plundering. Evans notices his slick confidence immediately, and becomes one of the few members of the group to keep himself at more than an arm’s length.

The trip quickly becomes an old-fashioned battle of wits between two worthy competitors. The conflict in 3:10 to Yuma is as much psychological as it is physical, and there are real dimensions to these characters that make the unbelievable happenings along the way seem wholly coherent and plausible. Chalk that up to the voluminous unspoken dialogue between Bale and Crowe, each carrying his share of the load.

I’m sure Russell Crowe’s infamously crappy attitude has made him more than a few enemies in Hollywood, but there’s a reason his workflow never dries up: The man is a fantastic actor, capable of breathing life into even a comparatively clichéd role like his title turn in Cinderella Man. Wade is another improbably great portrayal, a mystery man with an easy grin and a devil’s appetite for mayhem. Crowe keeps him in the audience’s good graces, despite the character’s evident malice. Crowe excels at finding the human in his monster, and it’s that slightly distorted face he carries around for most of 3:10 to Yuma.

Lucky for him, it’s not a one-man show. Bale turns in a great performance as Evans, a desperate man in sore need of some good luck. He’ll collect a lofty bounty for Wade’s safe passage, but it becomes clear early on that the character’s mountain of debt is only the most obvious motivator. Crippled during the Civil War and near the end of his rope on his dying farm, Evans is struggling in every way a man with a family can struggle: for survival, the respect of his children and the love of his wife.

My sole complaint with the film – and given it’s overall brilliance, it’s a smallish one – is that I would’ve liked to have seen more of Foster’s character. He does a fine job here, as he did playing another combustible maniac in Alpha Dog, but both those performances reek of missed opportunity, through no fault of Foster’s. He cuts an imposing, scarecrow-like figure in 3:10 to Yuma, but the character, as fun as he is to watch, is basically a hardened sociopath with no past and no future. A little background could have made his a supporting role on par with Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in Tombstone; unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for another film to see what the undeniably talented Foster can do. That’s a bit of a loss for 3:10 to Yuma, as I believe he’s a young actor capable of a real breakout performance sooner than later.

But that’s the only misstep. Director James Mangold, coming full force out of his 2005 biopic powerhouse Walk the Line, captures the inner turmoil of his two main characters amid the dangerous beauty of the lawless West. It’s a story that could sprawl across hours of celluloid, but he plays it tight and close, with unarticulated danger waiting in every valley, keeping a vigilant focus on his leads. It’s the strength of those leads and the film’s competent writing that makes 3:10 to Yuma a ride you shouldn’t miss.

Stick a rattlesnake in Glen Baity’s boot when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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