Friday, September 07, 2007

"3:10 to Yuma" -- * * *

Let's face it: there's a reason the Western died out. It's an inherently old-fashioned genre with an old-fashioned sense of morals, unexciting to today's audiences used to explosion-filled car chases and trucks transforming into intergalactic robots, and there's only so many stories that can be cooked up involving horses and gunslingers.

So it's all the more impressive that James Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma" manages to be solid in every respect, a gritty, fun piece of work that's just as likely to please 16-year-old boys as their grandfathers. Though Mangold still doesn't establish himself as much more than a competent director, "Yuma" is a significant improvement over his fomulaic and pedestrian "Walk the Line."

Based on a 50-year-old film I haven't seen-- which itself was based on an Elmore Leonard short story-- "Yuma's" protagonist is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a rancher wth a wooden leg struggling to feed his family and cattle. After his barn burns down, Evans accepts an offer to escort (along with Peter Fonda, Dallas Roberts and Alan Tudyk-- none of whom I knew were in the movie beforehand) recently captured prisoner Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), to the 3:10 train to prison the next day.

The trouble is, Wade's gang, chiefly the flamboyant Charlie Price (Ben Foster, playing a psycho for a change), is hot on their trailer, attempting to free their captured leader at any point they can. As the film goes on, Evans begins to care less about the monetary reward-- which he desperately needs-- and more about making his son ("Hoot's" Logan Lerman) proud. At the same time, Wade begins to like, and sort of admire, Evans, despite the latter's insistence on getting him to the train to Yuma no matter what. It becomes clear rather quickly that Charlie is the real villain of the movie, not Wade, who turns out to be more of a murderous, lovable scamp a la Captain Jack Sparrow.

What surprised me most about "Yuma" is how exciting it is at times, and how well the chase/shootout scenes, particularly the climax, work. Saddled with a director I generally consider dull, and a genre with a maximum potential for dullness, I certainly didn't expect to get into this movie nearly as much as I did. I also welcomed its characters' moral ambiguity, despite the one or two "pure evil" characters contained therein.

Bale can't help but be superb in everything he does, and he's true to form here. He does such a good job of showing us what a beaten down, world-weary guy Evans is, that it's almost unnecessary to give him a wooden leg on top of all of it. Crowe gives a breezy, charismatic performance, making Wade likable without ever allowing him to actually cross over into 'good guy' territory; I'd be lying if I said it seemed like a particularly demanding performance for the Oscar winner, but he's enjoyable to watch when he doesn't take himself too seriously (with the notable exception of "A Good Year").

I'm a bit torn on Foster's drag queen-esque crazyman. While Foster gives it his all, and lends the movie film some much-needed menace, I never really bought him as an actual person. This feels like a performance all the way; we're always aware we're watching an up-and-coming actor on a Hollywood set caked with "dirt" makeup and eye shadow. Similarly, Lerman's boyish prettiness is a problem; he has too much of a heavily made up teen idol look to be believable for the time period. It's like throwing a cowboy hat on Zac Efron and saying he's Jesse James.

"3:10 to Yuma" takes about 20 minutes to get going has its characters pour their heart out a bit too much in its final moments, but it has a truly crackerjack second act and a stunningly tense set-piece occupy its final 30 minutes that are strong enough to forgive its weaker moments. While the film doesn't reach the heights of Kevin Costner's "Open Range" from 3 years back (yet another western I was shocked I liked), I think it's going to surprise a lot of people.

If this can be enough of an audience hit, and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" can be enough of a critical one, maybe granddads across the nation can rejoice in the full-force rejuvenation of this prematurely-euthanized genre.


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