Westerns have become so infrequent in the last decade that one would be hard-pressed not to admit it's a dying genre. Stories of shootouts, thieves, cowboys and saloons of the Old West are today antiquated, overly conventional and dried-up in mainstream cinema. Because there seems to be a lack of relevancy in films of this ilk, filmmakers brave enough to attempt one better have something special up their sleeve in order to set themselves apart from the crowd.
In remaking a 1957 western of the same name, itself an adaptation of a 1953 Elmore Leonard short story, director James Mangold (2005's "Walk the Line
") has not succeeded with "3:10 to Yuma." It should be speedily mentioned that there is nothing overwhelmingly bad about the finished product, but there is also nothing, save for a performance or two, that inspires the viewer to sit up and take notice. Following a plot and character types that likely weren't even fresh back during the glory days of John Wayne and Roy Rogers, screenwriters Halsted Welles (he of the original picture) and writing team Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (2004's "Catch That Kid
") make a go of adding some underlying psychological layers to the characters this time around. Unfortunately, the extra dialogue only serves to add a half-hour to the running time and slow down the momentum.
Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a down-on-his-luck rancher struggling to provide for wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and sons William (Logan Lerman) and Mark (Benjamin Petry). After witnessing the robbery of a stagecoach and multiple murders at the hands of notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his men, Dan seizes on the opportunity to receive two hundred dollars for transporting a now-in-custody Ben to the small town of Contention in time for an execution-bound 3:10 train to Yuma. Underestimating Ben's slippery ways and savage prowess, Dan and his compadres on the mission, among them his own 14-year-old son William and the out-for-vengeance Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), have no idea how difficult the mission at hand is about to get.
"3:10 to Yuma" is a competent, albeit middle-of-the-road, western that would be more suited for cable channel TNT were it not for the participation of some heavy-duty acting talent. The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael (2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness
") is surprisingly flat, lacking the sweeping grandeur of the open desert and mountain landscapes one has come to expect from the genre. Without noteworthy visuals to grasp onto, the viewer is left to concentrate solely on the characters and their interplay. On both counts, they follow tried-and-true archetypes, leading up to a too-little-too-late climactic shootout just as the fateful train of the title arrives at the station.
Of the two leads, Christian Bale (2005's "Batman Begins
") is saddled with the less showy role of Dan Evans. Bale, one of today's most chameleonic actors, lives up to the script requirements as he portrays a man tired of barely squeaking by in life and, with his family's welfare in the forefront of his mind, willing to risk everything for a chance at the financial security that has forever eluded him. However, it is Russell Crowe's (2006's "A Good Year
") stellar work as morally questionable convict Ben Wade that overpowers Bale. Crowe, a powerful, riveting force even in whispers, is the one performer who enriches the depth of his character beyond what on the written page is as much a stock figure as the rest of them. Watching Ben, who claims to be a cold-hearted murderer but begins to sympathize with Dan's personal plight, is a treat as Crowe gives life to him. In supporting turns, Logan Lerman (2007's "The Number 23
") is capable but bland as the impressionable William, and Ben Foster (2007's "Alpha Dog
") adds another notch to his belt depicting an oily creep as uninhibited psychopath Charlie Prince.
True fans of the classical western will probably find enough to like about "3:10 to Yuma" to satisfy their recently unsatiated hunger. For everyone else, the movie is an unremarkable slog through archaic plot developments and humdrum filmmaking in need of some style. It's crystal-clear where the picture is headed every step of the way and, even when the final scene throws a corkscrew or two the viewer's way, it's not enough to make the previous 100-plus minutes worthwhile. Russell Crowe's superb efforts aside, the bulk of "3:10 to Yuma" is simply forgettable.