I haven’t seen the 1957 original upon which this utterly enthralling film is based, but it doesn’t matter. This is inventive and exciting, a grip-the-armrests, hold-your-breath reinvigorating of the Western movie, and either director James Mangold decided to follow up his fantastic Walk the Line by completely rethinking the half-century-old 3:10 to Yuma, or he decided to follow up his fantastic Walk the Line by being slavishly faithful to the ’57 because he saw something still up-to-the-minute in it. Whichever is the case, he’s a genius.
Because Mangold makes you feel like you’ve never seen a Western before. The stagecoach ambush and robbery that opens the movie features some pretty clichéd moments — thundering horses, good guys and bad shootin’ at one another, etc. — but Mangold finds fresh angles on a familiar scene, brings a modern action edge to something you might think couldn’t quite be modernized and still retain its retro deliciousness. But Mangold manages that, too: this new Yuma is gloriously old-fashioned in the best movie way, redolent of its pulpy, junky roots in the pure adventure thrills of dime novels but also heady with consequence. This Yuma knows — and maybe the old one did too; I’ll have to check it out — that there’s plenty of significance to be found in classic characters and simple stories.
Classic character No. 1: Thief, scoundrel, and outlaw philosopher Ben Wade, who is “as rotten as hell,” if we’re to believe his own assessment of himself. More genius points to Mangold for casting Russell Crowe as Wade, because Crowe (Cinderella Man, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) creates mountains of suspense that make us wonder whether he really is as rotten as hell or just has to pretend to be as part of his job. He is mesmerizing, dominating the screen, if ironically so, with an intimacy that is all the more intense the closer the camera gets in: that’s when, in mere moments, encyclopedias of cunning and style and wry humor and conflicting emotion flicker over his face. It’s what makes Crowe the goddamn sexiest son of a bitch on the screen today. It’s not what he looks like — the closer the camera gets the more you realize that’s he’s actually not very handsome, not in any vapid movie-star way, at least — but what he does. But feel free to take my praise for the film with half a grain of salt if you’re not thoroughly under Crowe’s spell: it’s possibly you won’t find the film as riveting as I did if you aren’t. All I know is, there’s a moment early in the movie when Crowe’s bad-boy man-in-black pushes through a pair of swinging saloon doors, another Western cliché Mangold toys with by not overly emphasizing it, and yet it still feels like the entirety of cinema history has been building to this: holy crap, Russell Crowe as a Western villain. Fuckin’ brilliant.
Still, still… Give me some credit here. I realized, after my first viewing of Yuma, that I’d been so thoroughly bowled over by Crowe that I had probably failed to see the rest of the movie. So I saw it again. And the second time around, when I was less ready to orgasm every time Crowe’s mushy mug — and the talent and intelligence rippling beneath it — appeared, I fell even more in love with the movie. Part of why: Classic character No. 2 is kindhearted, struggling rancher Dan Evans, and he’s played by the gracefully gifted Christian Bale. He’s another one like Crowe, someone who speaks volumes when he’s not even speaking… and like Crowe, he’s someone who’s even better when he’s got a worthy opponent to play against. The opportunity to witness artists on the monumental scale of Bale and Crowe face off is an enormous part of the pure cinematic pleasure of 3:10 to Yuma.
And face off they do. Simple story: Prisoner transport. Wade gets himself captured in remotest Arizona by the local law enforcement, a mishmash of town sheriff and agents for the railroad whose payroll coaches Wade keeps holding up, and now he needs to be gotten to the prison train, the one that leaves for Yuma at 3:10pm from a nearby town. Evans, hard up for cash, volunteers for the detail. It doesn’t go as planned, of course, and Wade and Evans end up acting more as comrades and colleagues than enemies… until they don’t.
Without these two — without the likes of Crowe and Bale — it’s easy to see how the deep and probing questions the film asks in its subtext could either have gotten lost or gotten overplayed to the point of parody. What is loyalty? What’s worth fighting for? What’s worth dying for? What is honor? What makes an honorable man? Is discretion the better part of valor, or is it a coward’s excuse? When is “bravery” mere foolhardiness? By the time Yuma ends up at its — whoa — bloodbath of a finale, none of these questions have been answered, only offered for our consideration. And because we’ve fallen so in love with both Evans and Wade and their compellingly complicated ethics and ideals — which we’ve done because Bale and Crowe made them such compellingly complicated men — we’re still haunted by those unanswered questions long after the movie ends.
Watch 3:10 to Yuma online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.