The first big Western of the new season, "3:10 to Yuma," starring Russell Crowe, is upon us. It will soon be followed by "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," starring Brad Pitt. Now that Hollywood appears to have rediscovered the genre, those of us who mourned its demise can once again exert our connoisseurship. Hooray, I say.
"3:10 to Yuma" is based on a 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard, which was made – four years later – into a very good Delmer Daves movie starring Van Heflin and Glenn Ford. (It's just been reissued on DVD.) The new version, directed by James Mangold ("Walk the Line") and starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, is larger in scope than its predecessor, and significantly altered in its ending, but essentially it's the same old morality play. A good man, who may not be entirely good, is tempted by a bad man, who may not be entirely bad.
No genre is more "American" than the Western. Undoubtedly a big reason for its resurgence is its back-to-basics appeal at a time when American ideals are at war throughout the world. The current Western is a respite from all that. There's something comfortingly elemental about "3:10 to Yuma," which doesn't pretend to be about anything but itself – it's not about the Hollywood blacklist ("High Noon") or Vietnam ("Little Big Man") or Iraq.
Dan Evans (Bale) is an Arizona Territory rancher who was wounded as a sharpshooter fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War. Faced with a serious drought, a decimated herd, and a loss of respect from his wife (Gretchen Mol) and his 14-year-old son, Will (Logan Lerman), Dan suddenly finds himself in a position to make some real money.
The notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) has been captured, and Dan, for a price, joins the posse escorting him on the three-day journey to the town where Ben will board the train bound for the federal court in Yuma. The posse, which is being tracked by Ben's gang, is a ragtag group which includes a Bible-toting bounty hunter (Peter Fonda) who barely flinches when a bullet is removed from his gut.
A posse, of course, is an essential appurtenance of any self respecting Western. It's been a long time – too long – since I've heard those glorious words, "Spread out!" As the posse is methodically worn away and only Dan and Ben remain, "3:10 to Yuma" becomes a study in unlikely kinship – another Western mainstay. Dan knows Ben is a better man than many who have hunted him down. But he never forgets that Ben is a killer.
Bale acts as if he's still playing the POW survivalist from Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn." His hyperrealistic performance is a drag next to Crowe's dapper prince of darkness. Crowe understands that the classic Western villains wear their mythology like a cape. His underplaying here is in many ways as hammy as if he were overplaying, and that's just fine.
Mangold and his screenwriters aren't trying to be revisionists. Ben is celebrated in the dime novels of the day and, in person, he still seems larger than life. Because Dan's son idealizes Ben, or at least the Ben of the dime novels, the movie turns on the notion of heroism. Dan's heroics, in the end, become a match for Ben's antiheroics, and Will learns to love his father.
This drippy father-son stuff is the least successful aspect of the movie, perhaps because it's overly familiar not only from other Westerns, but also from all-too-many current contemporary films. Who can blame Will for being starry-eyed around Ben? From a didactic standpoint, the problem with most morality plays, this one included, is that the villains are almost always more exciting than the champions of decency.
On the other hand, what Alfred Hitchcock once said about thrillers also applies to Westerns: The stronger the bad guy, the better the film. By that measure, "3:10 to Yuma" is excellent. Grade: B+
• Rated R for violence and some language.