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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?

Quick Picks: “Body of Lies,” “Sex Drive”

“Body of Lies” (Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong, Alon Abutbul)

The world is “much simpler … to put to an end than you might think,” explains desk-bound CIA operative Ed Hoffman (Crowe) in “Body of Lies,” and coming from a man who begins and ends wars with a single keystroke, it’s as much a chilling threat as an observation about post-9/11 America. And it’s the glue that holds all the pieces — and there are many, many pieces, too many to count — of this Labrynthine espionage thriller together.

Donning Regular Joe khakis, a too-snug windbreaker jacket and oversized glasses, Crowe is creepy, hyper-informed Big Brother personified: He directs CIA operations in Iraq, Jordan and Syria from his air-conditioned Langley office, missions that quick-thinking field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) carries out. Attempting to smoke out terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Abutbul), the harried Ferris partners with the Jordan Intelligence Agency’s shrewd chief, Hani (a cold, calculating Strong). The rest unfolds at a breathless, whiplash-inducing pace, and there’s too much to digest in one sitting. (Here’s a film that both demands and rewards multiple viewings.)

Still, this is much more than a blow ’em up cat-and-mouse game — the focus on character development forces us to care about what happens to these agents as much as WHY it happens. (Just try not to squirm and wince during a brutal torture scene.) Solid but never showy performances make this possible. DiCaprio grows more subtle and effective with each role; long gone are the “Teen Beat” days when his flawless bone structure overshadowed his considerable acting chops. Here, his Ferris is no too-cool James Bond wannabe (sorry, Mr. Ebert) flashing a gun and a grin to charm the enemy. He’s a real agent in real danger, caught between two power players out to one-up each other — regardless of the collateral damage.

Which is where Crowe and Strong come in … not with a bang, but with a quiet determination that’s twice as unnerving. Ordinarily a bit-part actor, Strong, cast in the similarly complex “Syriana,” is freeze-your-blood good as Hani, who’s learned enough about America’s CIA operatives to manipulate them, turn them against one another. Crowe, too, turns in a fine, nuanced performance as Hoffman, who fires off world-changing orders — assassinations, bombings, you name it — in-between slow bites of breakfast cereal. Absolute power, it seems, hasn’t corrupted him; it’s just made him eerily complacent. In fact, it’s Hoffman’s total lack of remorse and conscience, his cold detachment and never-ruffled mannerisms that make him as sinister as Hani or the powerful anti-American terrorist ringleader Al-Saleem.

Yet it’s a testament to William Monahan’s smart script that neither Hoffman nor Strong are pigeonholed as villains. In Hoffman’s words, “no one’s innocent” in this war — words that burrow under your skin and stay there long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: B-

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“Sex Drive” (Josh Zuckerman, Clark Duke, Amanda Crew, Katrina Bowden)

If “Sex Drive” feels oddly familiar, there’s a good reason: This uninspired teen sex/road trip comedy contains traces of everything from “American Pie” (note: Zuckerman bears a striking resemblance to “Pie” alumnus Thomas Ian Nicholas) to John Cusack’s whip-smart “The Sure Thing” to last summer’s gleefully foul-mouthed romp “Superbad.” What it lacks? Oh, say, one-tenth of the originality and heart of any of these better movies. The been-there, seen-that plot centers on shy virgin Ian (Zuckerman doing a half-hearted Michael Cera impression), who steals the tricked-out 1969 GTO owned by his musclehead brother (James Marsden as you’ve never seen him – with a pulse) and drives to Tennessee to meet Ms. Tasty (Bowden), his “Playboy” centerfold-hot online girlfriend. Along for the ride are womanizing BFF Lance (Duke), who nails anything in a skirt, and Goth gal pal Felicia (Crew), the object of Ian’s affection who, of course, has the hots for Lance. Various sex- and alcohol-related pratfalls take place (most of them in what can only be described as a Reform Amish community) and lead up to a soppy, unsatisfying close. There are flashes of originality — Seth Green is snarky brilliance as a sarcastic Amish mechanic; the phrase “visiting grandma” gets a cringe-inducing makeover — but ultimately “Sex Drive” is too derivative and sloppy to leave much of an impression (excluding, of course, the double-entendre title).

Grade: C-