The Western is in fine fettle at the moment, with flicks like The Proposition, Three Burials and yes, even Brokeback Mountain bucking the trend. The latest grizzled gunslinger to mosey into town is James Mangold's remake of 3:10 To Yuma, a more straightforward Western with nary a gay cowboy eating pudding in sight. In fact, it's one of the better pictures in the genre of late; a blistering character-based story that's more than just shotguns and showdowns.
Bale plays Dan Evans, an Arizona rancher getting dumped on by local hoodlums, his family and by God himself - a long-term drought means his ranch faces closure, and he's been hobbling along on a wooden leg ever since the war. Evans is desperate for a break, so much so that he volunteers to join the posse tasked with escorting famed bank-robber Ben Wade (Crowe) across town, so that he can be thrown onto the 3:10 prison train to Yuma. Wade, wily as he is, won't let himself be thrown in the clink quite so easily, and is counting on his own men, led by wild-eyed Charlie Prince (Foster) to track him down and set him free. What we're left with is literally a race against the clock; Bale's rancher and his concrete morals, versus Crowe's charismatic law-breaker, versus old Father Time.
Naturally, things aren't as clear-cut as they seem. We discover that Wade isn't the ferocious animal he's made out to be - in fact, for a low-down killer he's a fairly honourable chap - while Evans sticks so closely to his personal code, he constantly puts his life and the lives of his family in danger. It's this depth of character that's an integral cog to 3:10 To Yuma's success - instead of a simple good versus evil tale, you've got two layered characters peering into one another's soul and being frightened by how much of themselves they see in the other.
In Wade, a jealous Evans sees a charismatic, carefree womaniser, a man to whom the rules of life do not apply, a rogue who his son idolises - Wade is everything he is not. Conversely, in Evans, Wade sees a pillar of righteousness and a man with better morals than any sheriff he's ever encountered. Both men envy one another but stay the course, sticking to their guns (as it were) and riding out the choices they've made, for better or for worse. Such complexity would be lost on lesser actors, so it helps that Crowe and Bale are two of Hollywood's finest, both men putting in intense performances that could have so easily turned cornball in the wrong hands.
Elsewhere, Peter Fonda puts in a spirited performance as grizzled lawman Byron, who's been on Wade's trail for years (it's nice to see a performance from Peter Fonda the actor rather than Peter Fonda the name for once: see Ghost Rider
, Wild Hogs etc.) and Ben Foster is creepy as hell as Wade's bat-shit crazy second-in-command. The baffling Luke Wilson cameo is certainly an odd one, though; you can't help but think he's better sticking to comedies for now. It's a bit like seeing Ben Stiller pop up in the middle of a Holocaust drama: "Stupid little... Nazis, with your 'Sieg Heil' and your little jack boots... gyaah!"
Thankfully, Mangold is a sensible enough chap not to let proceedings fall into the lazy realm of cliché - you won't find many faceless goons swan-diving off roofs and there's nary a tumbleweed to be spotted. There's a very real stench in the air; Mangold's Western is all dirt and grime (although not half as filthy as The Proposition) while the rudimentary towns are all very much 'works in progress' i.e. crap-shacks in the making. The climactic gunfight is a real teeth-rattler, too - gunshots tear through wood, metal and flesh at deafening volume, men dropping like flies. This is not a glamorous film - Bale and Crowe must have needed weeks' worth of showers to get the stink off.
Elevated above the usual fare by an engaging and complex relationship between its two stars, 3:10 To Yuma would be a thoroughly entertaining two hours whatever the genre - the Western setting is almost a bonus. It's not often you get to see two talented guys like Bale and Crowe go toe-to-toe with such aplomb (Crowe positively revels in his role as bad boy) so if you can find room for a character-driven drama amongst a weekend of pre-pubescent partying
and edgy teen thrillers
then it comes highly recommended.