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Review: “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and handles a mean shotgun -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and wields a mean double-barrel -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

There’s a brief scene early in “3:10 to Yuma”* that cuts straight to film’s conflicted conscience: Outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) sizes up one of his holier-than-thou captors and remarks, “Even bad men love their mamas.” And with that one seemingly junkheap-bound line of dialogue “Yuma” reveals itself to be a different kind of Western – one where the villains are intelligent and adaptable and the righteous are greedy and downright foolhardy in their moral inflexibility. One thing is for sure: a run-of-the-mill Saturday morning cowboys-and-Indians picture “Yuma” is certainly not.

At the heart of this Western is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck Arizona rancher who serves as proof that the good don’t always triumph. (Sometimes they even fail miserably.) Broke, weary and nearly crippled by a Civil War injury, he’s all but run off his land by moneygrubbers who want to cash in on the ever-expanding railroad industry. His oldest son William (Logan Lerman) and wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) don’t believe they’ll survive the season. Then Evans stumbles upon Wade robbing a stagecoach, and his luck begins to change. Soon, he volunteers as part of the caravan scheduled to transport Wade to Contention, where the robber will board a train headed to Yuma prison and end up with his neck getting intimate with a hangman’s noose.

The trip, of course, is far from simple: There’s a misguided attempt to pass through Apache-controlled lands, and Wade’s gang — led by the vicious Charlie Prince (an impressively menacing Ben Foster) — tries to free the infamous robber at every stop. It’s a nonstop ride of violent action and quietly devastating character interaction that trails into an unexpected (and some might say unfulfilling) end.

Ah, the end. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has taken place over the film’s final minutes, with most everyone railing and wringing their hands in frustration. Of course, the conclusion will not be revealed here, but it must be said that the film’s finale is the key to understanding what makes “Yuma” tick. The end offers no panacea — its ambiguity serves a purpose, a big one, and it’s up to viewers to do the mental heavy lifting.

But the end is only a small part of why “Yuma” is such a worthwhile venture. As an action film, “Yuma” is surprisingly bloody and brutal. Set against the unforgiving dustbowl of the searing Arizona desert, the shootouts and mine collapses and top-speed horse chases seem larger than life. (Then again, that’s what Westerns are, in some small part, about — showing the truths of life in unflinchingly hard ways.) But with a small cast studded with high-profile powerhouse actors, the acting in “Yuma” is hardly shabby, either. Legendary Peter Fonda has some fun with his character, Byron McElroy, a mean-as-a-snake bounty hunter who’d just as soon but a bullet in Wade’s eye than deliver him to the station. Alan Tudyk, a wildly underappreciated comic actor, draws a few laughs as Doc Potter, a large animal vet who unwitting gets roped into Wade’s caravan. And a note here about that Ben Foster, who tears into Charlie Prince like a man in throes of demonic possession: What an actor this guy’s turning out to be. 

For the most part, Bale and Crowe run this show, and with good reason. Bale, known for taking darker roles, transforms Dan from a one-note do-gooder into a conflicted character, a man who chooses to do right not because he’s a saint but because it’s all he’s got left. Ben Wade is the kind of role Crowe, who excells at creating laconic, morally amibuous characters, was born to play. With his crooked smile and mirthful eyes, he’s near perfect as Wade, a crook who lives as much by his wits as his pistol. He’s equal parts venom and compassion, and he sees what so few other characters do: Morality is entirely subjective.

Though Crowe alone is almost worth the admission price, there’s another reason to give “Yuma” a chance: Any Western where there is nary a tumbleweed to be seen, well, isn’t afraid to take chances.

Grade: B+

*Readers who have seen the original 1957 film: How does this one stack up?

19 Responses

  1. Good description of why this movie feels like it is a terrific movie, without actually achieving greatness. Ben Foster was really evil, he does it well.

    • Ben Foster is the man. Between this and what he did in “Alpha Dog,” I’m sold on him as a villain. He does crazy so well it’s kind of scary.

  2. I’m not a big western fan, so I didn’t enjoy this movie. I thought it was boring as hell.

    • I’m not much for Westerns myself, but I thought this one was very well done — great acting, good pacing, the right amount of character development and action. Plus, Ben Foster makes a killer villain.

      • I would agree with Ben Foster. He always makes a good bad guy. The movie did hook me like “Unforgiven” or “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” did.

        I guess, I love a grit with my westerns. Very dusty.

      • Grit’s gotta be in a Western. And a good villain. Haven’t seen that many Westerns, but I can’t believe that any have a villain better than Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett in “Unforgiven.” But Russell Crowe’s not half-bad.

  3. This was one my favourite films of 2007. I thought all the performances were swell, and it was very well shot, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  4. I love how 3:10 shows that a movie can be pul fiction and still be a well-directed, well-written yarn.

    Great review – I think this movie is gonna age particularly well!

    • I think so too — I’ve seen it twice and I noticed new things the second go-round. That’s the testament to a good film.

  5. this movie is a subject of much debate between myself and Ross McD, mainly cos he thinks the ending is totally ridiculous. i like the film though, although i disagree with you M Carter USM – i think it IS ‘a rollicking Saturday morning cowboys-and-Indians picture’ – its basically all action with a little bit of character thrown in, yet no less a movie for it. James Mangold is one of those directors i like cos he tends to do different stuff – Cop Land, Kate and Leopold, Identity, Walk the Line – while all not completely perfect movies they are all enjoyable, and i think 310 falls into that category

    • Personally, I like the ending. Then again, I liked the endings to “Limbo” and “No Country for Old Men,” both of which had people in the theater throwing things at the screen, they were so disgruntled.

  6. Firstly I have to say I loved the end to No Country for Old Men.

    Now, onto 3:10 to Yuma. I am going to have to do something that doesn’t happen very often. Agree with Ross! He said:

    “i think it IS ‘a rollicking Saturday morning cowboys-and-Indians picture’”

    I think that is how the film works best, it is an all action film with a bit of meaning and subtext but not to heavy, a bit like The Outlaw Josey Wales. If you try and elevate it to anything more deep and meaningful you are in competition with Unforgiven and the Searchers, it just can’t compete of that level. Just to clarify, I did like the film.

    Completely irrelevant but thought I would share it with you. I went to Yuma last year, not much there but there is some niece scenery in the surrounding deserts.

  7. can I print out and frame that last comment?

  8. I don’t like westerns, but I really liked this movie. I can pretty much watch Christian Bale in anything though. This movie had surprising depth. I need to go back and watch the original.

    • Haven’t seen the original either, Stacy. I must get on that.

      I’m with you on the Christian Bale thing, and I’m starting to think that about Russell Crowe. “Gladiator,” “American Gangster,” “Body of Lies” — he’s won me over.

  9. I’m not much of a Western fan either but I LOVE this one. I came in thinking I’ll root for Bale’s character, but ended up sympathizing with Ben Wade, perhaps more than I should. I like the ending too, the ambiguity works here, in fact, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    Besides the strong leads, the supporting performances were great. Ben Foster of course, but glad you mentioned Alan Tudyk, he’s such a great comic relief here. He’s great in “Death at a Funeral,” absolutely hilarious.

    As always, fantastic review M, I love how you set up the intro. I’m your biggest fan, as you already know =)

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