In this remake of a 1957 western, a small-time family man and rancher, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), agrees to hold captured outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) as he awaits the 3:10 train to go to court in Yuma. Desperate for the money, Dan is putting his life on the line – threatened with his life by the outlaw’s gang, who are in hot pursuit.
Leaving aside any postmodern twists, Yuma returns to the classic wild frontier, before the railroad brought order, when the dusty plains were roamed by lawless men and justice was served by a bullet to the head. Every ingredient is here: the buxom barmaid in the saloon; a woman slowly sweeping her porch; a stagecoach hijacking. For fans of the genre, this film has it all.
Take the fantastic climactic shootout, for example. The sound design is deeply layered and gives the impression that bullets are whizzing past from every direction. As Evans and Wade scuttle from hiding place to hiding place, wood splinters and clumps of dry earth go flying. It’s gun-slinging adventure in the classic sense.
Both Bale and Crowe give decent performances, but stealing the show is Wade’s second in command, Charlie, played with gleeful menace by terrific newcomer Ben Foster. Next to him the other supporting characters seem bland; mostly due to some fairly perfunctory dialogue. Peter Fonda’s crazy old timer, in particular, suffers from this. And Dan’s straight-shooting son comes across as a dullard with an inexplicably staunch moral conscience.
Letting the film down to some extent is the laissez-faire approach to character morality, and an inability to convince the audience of the believability of the characters’ choices. Russell Crowe gives his villain a roguish affability, but the ending (without spoiling anything) still doesn’t ring true.
Technically and visually, 3:10 to Yuma proves to be one of the better mainstream releases this year to date. But unlike the true western, which was characterized more by a poetic moral examination than by horses and guns, the film remains too ordinary to be a truly memorable reinvigoration of the genre.