Movie News & Reviews

Wild West never looked so good

Man, according to westerns, the railroads were history's greatestmonster. Sure, they brought progress and prosperity to the frontier,but evidently they displaced roughly 40 billion innocent freesteadersalong the way. The railroaders appear to have needed so much landit's a wonder the continent's not a solid mat of iron between thePanama Canal and the Arctic Circle.

In "3:10 to Yuma," the railroad's hassling Christian Bale, the latestindividual seeking his own way in a world of crooks on both sides ofthe law. After the railroad's agents burn down his barn with all hiscattle feed in the midst of a drought, it looks like he and his familymight have to pack it in.

Opportunity comes in the form of bandit Russell Crowe, who getscaptured after knocking off the railroad's payroll wagon. With therest of Crowe's gang lurking in the area, led for the moment by thewrathful Ben Foster, Bale hires himself out for $200 to help escortCrowe to the nearest train station so he can be carted off tocivilization and properly hanged.

Not exactly an easy task, as it turns out. Crowe's as dangerous withhis words as he is with his hands, which are lethal even when cuffed.They're pursued all the way by Foster and his men, and they find nohelp along the way, even from their fellow railroad men. If they'regoing to make it to that train station, they're going to have dependon their own strength to get the job done.

I don't know why so few westerns are made these days. When they'redone well, they're built for hardboiled performances, there are lotsof guns, and when you're dealing with a bunch of people living insemi-lawlessness in a hostile land, there's all kinds of room forinsight into the nature of man. Heck, if all they do right is theguns part, there's no reason to make another "Die Hard" over awestern.

Especially when, like "3:10 to Yuma," they make good use of all thosethings. The performances are pretty much knockouts (I think that's anindustry term for "great"), starting with Crowe, who brings so muchcharisma to the role it's easy to forget he's a murderer, and Bale, anunderstated man who can't seem to decide whether to knuckle under tothe forces around him or make a stand and risk it all. Crowe onlyspeaks to throw other men off balance, and Bale doesn't speak much atall, but they find common ground in a world ruled by common thugs.

And then there's Ben Foster.

In "Six Feet Under," Foster played a neurotic art student who couldn'tkeep hold of a girlfriend. In "X-Men 3," he played a cuddly angel whojust wanted to fly. If his character in "3:10 to Yuma" heard me saythat angel stuff, though, he would gun me down where I stood, and hewould do it with such raw rage I would be too busy thinking about howcool he is to realize I'd just been shot to death.

The man needs some more big parts, stat. And whoever cast him needs araise. Foster's brought an intensity to all his roles, but he's neverbeen able to cut loose like he does here. I don't think shootingwhomever you please is a very nice thing to do, but with about fivemore minutes of screen time Foster would've had me believing me it's afine alternative to living a moral life.

Then again, if this movie's got it right, most peoples' morals aren'tworth much more than lip service against the power of money. "3:10 toYuma's" a throwback to America's old noirs and westerns, and for themost part it's so convincingly skeptical and fatalistic about howcheaply men can be bought that its final redemption is a little toomuch to swallow. Somehow, the nobility the ending's going for isn'tquite as believable as the colder truths it's been working over tothat point.

It almost earns that ending, though, and shooting high and fallingshort is a small quibble next to such good performances and thedirection of James Mangold, which lacks some of the personality of thebest westerns but has enough smart action and stark suspense to keepyou hooked. If we're lucky, its success will remind a few otherfilmmakers why these used to be so popular.

Grade: A-

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