Director James Mangold’s update of Elmore Leonard’s 1957 short story 3:10 to Yuma is a gritty action-packed movie that trades on the talents of its headstrong leading men. Russell Crowe effortlessly settles into the role of mastermind robber Ben Wade, whose days of killing and theft draw to a close after his capture at a brothel where he dallies too long. Distraught rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is on the brink of loosing his land to the railroad when he accepts the promise of a rich reward to help capture and escort Ben Wade as far as the 3:10 train to Yuma prison where he is to be hanged.
Nevertheless, the handcuffed prisoner increases his chances of escape with every guard he eliminates during the intense overland journey. Dan’s disobedient teenage son Will (Logan Lerman) comes to his father’s aid, and proves to be an essential asset before the train for Yuma leaves the station. Aside from a few plot pits, 3:10 to Yuma is a boisterous western with strong ensemble performances all around.
Early on, ruffians set fire to Dan’s barn and he swears retribution that he is powerless to achieve. Since losing a leg in the Civil War, Dan wears a prosthetic limb that challenges his son’s doubts about his father. Even Dan’s wife (Gretchen Mol) has little faith in her husband’s ability to provide for their family. These are the ingredients of pathos that Bale skewers as a master of the unexpected emotion.
3:10 to Yuma sets itself apart from the archetypal revenge structure by pitting the notion of an ingenious bandit against an emasculated war veteran struggling to save his family. There’s a wealth of dramatic material here, and a large part of the film’s appeal comes from the duality between its notoriously contentious leading men.
Crowe’s studied composure withers in the presence of Bale’s slow-burn tenacity even as Wade is sold as Dan’s physical and intellectual superior. Bale is the better actor, and you can see it in the way he manipulates nuances of motivation that leave a mark, while Crowe’s throwaway performance is smooth to a fault.
Mangold (Walk the Line) sees where Elmore Leonard’s post-modern western strays from classical constraints of the genre, and is keen to emphasize an unconventional tone to the violence. Sequences of brutal action are treated with the desperation and intellect of the characters, while staying true to their inherent cinematic energy.
There’s a moment of fetishistic appreciation for the weaponry of the day during a payroll coach robbery that Wade commands before being caught. A shiny Gatling gun mounted in the coach promises to overpower the thieves, and the audience is invited to marvel at its impressive functionality. And yet, when Dan and his son come upon the heist from afar, we share in accepting the dark allure of the crime that Will appreciates for its palpable excitement.
Visually, 3:10 to Yuma is stunning. An undercurrent of excitement permeates every frame. A battle of wits between Dan and Wade lock the men in an extended duel that the audience is privy to on a subconscious level until the film’s last moments bring on a rush of realization. Justice is not what it seems. MTW