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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?

A case for Christian Bale

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

There comes a time in a reviewer’s life when she (this is my story, so the reviewer has girl parts) must defend the honor of a very fine actor who has, in recent times, made several not very fine movies. Or seems to have grown an ego large enough to consume Amy Winehouse’s beehive with a single dainty princess bite.

To no one’s surprise … that actor is Christian Bale.

Of late, several friends (and, OK, me) have mentioned that the post-“Batman” Bale bears precious little resemblance to the actor who wowed us with intense performances in movies of every genre, from odd, disturbing arthouse to coming-of-age drama to nihilistic horror. Whatever magic Bale had, whatever innate ability to dissolve completely into a character and eliminate all traces of self, he’s starting to lose it. He’s certainly never been a whimsical actor, but these days he seems to approach every role the way Idi Amin approached dissenters. And Bale’s just about that subtle, too.

Despite this turn of events, I want to believe that Bale isn’t through yet, that he didn’t let “Batman” fame ruin him for acting forever. Why, you wonder, would I keep hoping when there’s so much evidence suggesting that he is, well, a complete jackass? One: The cynic inside hasn’t managed to kill the dreamer … just duct-taped her and stashed her in the nearest closet. And two: Bale has a history too full of daring, innovative or just plain commendable performances that suggest there’s enough talent to beat down that ego.

So now I present the facts:

  • “El Maquinista” — Every list of great Christian Bale performances must be topped with his work in “The Machinist.” It counts as a stunning physical transformation because Bale did Matt Damon’s gaunt smackhead in “Courage Under Fire” one better. Bale lost a frightening amount of weight to play tortured insomniac Trevor Reznik, so much that you fear for the actor’s own safety. It’s an extreme, brave performance, and that’s what makes it so haunting and memorable.
  • “American Psycho” — Bale might not have been the first choice to play superficial, amoral serial killer Patrick Bateman, but he was the best. As buff as his “Machinist” character was skeletal, he manages to evoke wit, charm underlined by subtle menace as a murderer who takes lives for no other reason than to curb his boredome. Compelling, scary stuff.
  • “Little Women” — Anyone who believes Bale came out of the womb with a grim frown on that chiseled face need only look back to 1994, where he played the spritely, witty, delightful Laurie in Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women.” Fifteen years later, his heartfelt speech to Jo March still makes my heart turn into a mushy, mushy bowl of Cornflakes.
  • “Harsh Times” — Bale, much like Ray Liotta, possesses just enough menace to make him seem a hair-trigger from cheerfully choking (or worse) the next person who steps in his path. He tapped into that bubbling inner rage pit to play Jim, an ex-Army ranger discharged for mysterious reasons. PTSD turns him into violent, delusional free agent, but Bale makes him into someone who seems human despite his seemingly inhuman rage.
  • “The Prestige” — Here is a movie that I love for many reasons, and the main one is Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, a magician with loads of raw talent but (surprise!) little flash and almost no skills. But Bale had a gleam in his eye, a slight spring in his step that suggested he was having a bit more fun with this part, crafted in part by Christopher Nolan. Oh, Chris, can’t you coax Fun Bale out again?
  • “3:10 to Yuma” — I can’t quite resist a film (especially a Western) where the hero (Bale) is far more discouraged and damaged than the villain. Enter Bale as Dan Evans, a got-nothing-left-to-lose man who can’t even farm his land, much less keep the respect of his wife or teenage son. There’s a hint of sly humor in his verbal sparring matches with Russell Crowe that suggests Bale does have a lighter side … buried under all those layers of dark twistiness.

Perhaps there is hope for Christian Bale yet, though his next projects — including a pic about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a pairing with Mark Wahlberg for 2011’s “Prisoners” and more movies for the “Terminator” and “Batman” sagas — hardly suggest he’s lightening up. Maybe he can wise up to the fact that it’s possible to play a serious character without losing his sense of humor.

At the very least, he could take Heath Ledger’s advice and, every other day or so, look in the mirror and ask himself: “Why so serious?” ‘Cause chances are, Mr. Bale, if you’re not having the slightest bit of fun, neither are we.