by Eugene Novikov
3:10 TO YUMA remembers when the western was serious business. This is not a film that enlists the conventions of this old, trod-upon genre in the service of something ironic and post-modern. It does not mock its old-time gunslingers, law men and roving criminals, or modernize them (though there are hints here of their impending extinction). Based on an old Elmore Leonard short story, the film -- itself a remake -- takes their values, their imperatives, and their moral code at face value, and then it does a remarkable thing: it explains these things to us. We understand these people as people, not as brimmed-hat-wearing clichés or inevitable genre staples. Breathtakingly exciting and incredibly moving, this -- far and away James Mangold's finest work -- is nothing less than a revolution. It makes the old not so much new but real again, vital and relevant.The alpha and the omega of the film is honor. This is, of course, nothing knew to Hollywood's version of the wild west, where notions of fair fighting and integrity have long been crucial, sometimes as a way to distinguish the black hats from the white and other times mattering across hero/villain boundaries. 3:10 to Yuma uses it as a sort of yardstick. When Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a legendary thief and murderer, has a tenacious bounty hunter on the ground and at his mercy, he doesn't pull the trigger. "I ain't gonna kill you," he says; "not like this." "Won't change a thing, letting me live," the bounty hunter replies. "I'll come for you."
"A western, by God."
We know right then that Wade won't be a "villain" in any conventional sense, though Crowe, chillingly confident and serene, makes it clear that he would have been game for it. For his part, Wade insists that he's a bad man, rotten to the core, and he may be right -- all available evidence indicates that he kills in cold blood on a fairly regular basis. But William Evans (Logan Lerman), the teenage son of Dan (Christian Bale) -- the rancher entrusted to put the captured Wade on a train to prison -- takes an immediate liking to the man, and if there is one thing movies have taught us, it is to trust the instincts of children (unless they are alien spawn, or named Damien).
Dan is a crippled Civil War vet, a proud man reduced to barely getting by on a small ranch, in terminal debt to cruel, violent people who would rather drive him off his land to make room for the railroad than get their money. The $200 he is offered to transport Wade will, he desperately hopes, pay what he owes, feed his family, and give him a boost in the eyes of his son, who is frustrated with his dad's unwillingness to fight. The depth of Dan's need to do these things (especially the last), and Ben Wade's dawning understanding of same, are at the heart of the film.
Wade's increasing respect for Evans, culminating in a final act of heartrending sympathy, is portrayed without initiating some sort of conversion on the part of Wade. Early in the film, we see him execute a screw-up henchman, later expressing the opinion that the victim was "weak and stupid." There is no doubt who the hero is, here -- Evans is a good man, and Wade is not -- but Evans' having managed to win the killer's admiration still somehow means a lot. It certainly means a lot to William, the look in whose eyes in one of the final shots basically encapsulates the film.
I keep using words like "good" and "bad" to describe these characters, but it might be more relevant to say whether or not they are worth a damn. Surely that is a more crucial measure in the world they inhabit, which truly has no room for the weak and stupid. "Immoral ain't got a damn thing to do with it," says a character late in the film, but that doesn't seem quite right -- a man has a moral duty to take care of himself and his family, to act honorably, and, when called for, to stay for a fair fight. Ben Wade has one more line in the exchange with the bounty hunter that I quoted above: "I'd be disappointed if you didn't."
3:10 to Yuma is an impeccably paced, thrilling western, largely traditional, with the occasional injection of modern shaky-cam cinematography to bring a new perspective to the familiar action. Bale lends his uncanny talent for creating characters who are vulnerable beneath a stubbornly stoic exterior, and Crowe gives his best performance in years -- he is really so much better playing morally questionable than righteous. But though it is indeed a western, the kind "they don't make anymore," the movie doesn't seem to know that, and refuses to be constrained by the label. Forget everything you think you know about the genre in the 21st century, and ignore anyone who calls this a "throwback." Gunslingers, bounty hunters, sheriffs, horses and hats? Yes. A pistol called the "Hand of God"? You bet. But so what? Damn the torpedoes. 3:10 to Yuma fearlessly reaches for greatness, and achieves it.(Reprinted from filmblather.com)
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originally posted: 09/10/07 02:57:58