3:10 to Yuma (2007) (****)

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Several months ago, I went to some film that I can’t really recall any details of, and there was a preview for the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, a 1957 western that had starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. “Oh, God,” I muttered to whoever was unlucky enough to have gone to the movies with me that night, “not another remake. Why must Hollywood remake everything? What’s the point? I’m sure it will be terrible.” I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Not only is director James Mangold’s new interpretation one of the best remakes I can remember, but it’s also one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. Oh, and yes, as all the reviews are saying, it’s bringing back the Western to its former glory. It also returns to Russell Crowe his former status as “bad ass,” a status which was under great speculation for a few years.

The story concerns Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a rancher who lost his leg in the Civil War and is rapidly losing the respect of his wife (Gretchen Mol) and his eldest son (Logan Lerman). As the film opens, Evans’ barn has been burned down because he hasn’t paid back a local land baron (his youngest son needed medicine) and the baron is planning on stealing his land to make way for the railroad. Meanwhile, feared outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) has just pulled off a daring robbery with his crew of bandits and murderers, including his right-hand man, the simple but vicious Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). Evans and Wade’s paths cross here, and as Evans leads a wounded bounty hunter (Peter Fonda) to town, Wade leaves with Evans’ horses.

Eventually, Wade is caught and Evans is hired by an executive from the railroad (Dallas Roberts) to transport Wade to Yuma, so he can stand trial and be executed for his crimes. Although the film has plenty of action and incredible set pieces (most memorable a rousing escape from a labor camp), the heart of the film is in the relationship between Wade and Evans. In another time, under different circumstances, these two could’ve been friends. Of course, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are two of today’s best leading actors (don’t believe me, rent L.A. Confidential and The Mechanist, and compare them to the performances they give here. These aren’t actors, they’re chameleons). Crowe plays Wade as brilliant and ruthless, a man who follows his own moral and ethical code and also manipulates and deceives others the way some people play the piano. There’s no doubt that Ben Wade is a bad man, but Crowe makes him one of the most likable and watchable bad guys in recent film history. Christian Bale’s part is a little trickier, Evans is a good man, but a lifetime of hardship and bad breaks has turned him harsh and resentful. We feel his anger. With every role Bale takes, he further convinces me that he can play anything.

As with Mangold’s previous film, the excellent Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk the Line, he peppers the film with several memorable supporting performances. Dallas Roberts, who played Sam Phillips in Walk the Line, plays the fussy, proper railroad agent who represents the new order of the West. Alan Tudyk plays Doc Potter, the local veterinarian who doubles as Wade’s personal physician. Peter Fonda is marvelous as the bounty hunter, his throat sounding practically burnt by the sun (and suspiciously Eastwood-ish). Ben Foster, who started out on a silly Disney sitcom in the mid-90s, is slowly becoming a very good actor (you might remember him as the creepiest of the trio of criminals in the Bruce Willis movie Hostage from a few years back). Here, he is a ruthless bastard, and plays it masterfully. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Gretchen Mol (who is both supportive and critical of her husband in her scenes), Logan Lerman, who is also very good as Evans’ eldest and Vinessa Shaw as a bartender who has a few scenes with Wade that suggest his sweeter side. There is also a cameo appearance by a well-known actor who in this film plays a henchman, but I wouldn’t dream of writing who that actor is.

3:10 to Yuma is a rousing action film, a thoughtful study on male bonding and, above all, a great Western. It’s also the best remake since The Departed. Too bad that awful remakes are much more common than great ones.

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