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'3:10 to Yuma'
It's been around since the dawn of movies, but right now the Western film is in one of its periodic hibernations; living mostly on television, it comes to us mainly via brute attempts to shake it into modern form ("Deadwood") or strained efforts to turn it into a subspecies of romance or epic ("Into the West").
What we haven't had in a long time is a Western movie that suggests the folks who made it felt a connection to the period and a need to tell a story set in it -- a film with a sensibility that might be recognized by the men who made Westerns back when the genre was riding high, but with modern craft that can be appreciated by people who favor splashier fare.
"3:10 to Yuma" fills that narrow bill. It's a movie grounded in something like the credible realism of a John Ford Western but which also can appease the thirsts for blood, wit and tension harbored by fans of Quentin Tarantino. Impressively, though, the film doesn't even kneel in homage or pander crassly. Rather, director James Mangold ("Walk the Line," "Cop Land") has taken a sturdy old-time Western, populated it with contemporary stars and language, amped up the energy and turned out a sturdy new-time Western. The climax is a little rushed and overheated, but by and large it's an invigorating film that shows us there's yet real life in this hoariest of genres.
The new "3:10 to Yuma," like the 1957 version, centers on Dan Evans, a struggling Arizona rancher who witnesses a stagecoach robbery led by the fiendish Ben Wade and then, after helping capture the bad man, agrees to help escort him to justice for a sum that will free him from his debts.
Both films are based on a story by Elmore Leonard, but they differ crucially: The original film spends much time on conversation between Wade and Evans and focuses more on Evans' wife, whereas the new film has more action sequences and is infused subtly with themes that echo vexing contemporary political and moral issues.
It's also filled with exciting acting. As Evans (originally Van Heflin), Christian Bale gives us another of his wounded, desperate, stubborn men who insist on having things their own way even when they're certain not to get it. Opposite him, Russell Crowe fills a role originated by Glenn Ford with a big dose of the mocking charisma, cool discernment and casual cruelty of Robert Mitchum.
Despite the gunfire and ticking-clock narrative, the interplay between these two is the heart of the film. Evans has lost a limb and the respect of his eldest son and sees in the mission to jail Wade a chance to redeem his self-esteem and make good on his promises to his family. Wade is a sinister charmer who thinks he's sussed out Evans' situation and thus finds himself surprised when the man shows more mettle than he originally evinced. Their back-and-forth parley climaxes, ironically, in a hotel bridal suite, where they reveal their oldest, darkest secrets to each other in an effort to win the other fellow over. It's played with grit and zest and little indulgence.
Minor characters come off well, too. Peter Fonda has a nice turn as a morally dubious bounty hunter, and Ben Foster channels his scenery-chewing tendencies for the most part as Wade's bloodthirsty right-hand man. And Mangold has a wonderful eye for such details as the faces of hired guns, the meager belongings on a frontier family's shelves, the glint in a killer's eye.
Racing toward a climax that sews up the narrative too quickly and lays on the lucky escapes too conveniently, the film loses some hold. But "3:10 to Yuma" is a fine and sturdy picture, capable of standing alongside the many such films made when Westerns were one of our chief entertainments. It gives hope that they might someday be again.
(116 minutes, rated R, multiple locations) Grade: B+
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