The reason that "3:10 to Yuma" is the best thing to happen to the Western genre in a good while is that it's not trying to be the best thing to happen to the Western genre in a good while. Ever since "The Wild Bunch," nearly every Western that's come out has either been trying to "deconstruct," "revise" or "examine" the genre, and every OTHER Western has been attemtping to counteract those efforts through re-mythologizing. Now, for the first time since "Tombstone," we've got a Western that isn't asking to be judged as anything other than what it is: A pretty damn good action/drama that happens to be set in the Old West. Is it going to be the movie that turns old-school cowboys into the "new" superheroes? No, and I'm grateful that it knows better than to bother.
Christian Bale has the lead as Dan Evans, a one-legged (Civil War wound) rancher who's impotent innability to make the land work or fend off the Railroad Company goons trying to run him off it is (possibly) starting to cost him the patience of his wife and has (definately) already cost him the respect of his eldest son - who prefers as a role-model Ben Wade, a notorious outlaw he's read about it dime-store paperbacks. As it turns out, the ACTUAL Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) has recently led his gang of brutal thieves into the area for a coach robbery. Wade is one of those inherently-brilliant improvisational supercrooks who's always cool, collected and Zen in the manner of someone who's thinking ten steps ahead of everyone else, to the point that he barely registers mild annoyance when a posse of Pinkertons (overheard at the screening: "Dude, which guy is Pinkerton?") and a crotchety Bounty Hunter (Peter Fonda!!) bust him in Evans' cozy little county.
Problematically, Wade's gang is comprised of super-dangerous cutthroats who tend to go a little feral without The Boss around to guide them. Even MORE problematically, while they'd be trouble enough scattered to the four winds, Wade's full-blown-psycho of a Second in Command (Ben Foster) is more than a little... um.. well, obsessed with his mentor, and opts to hold the wolfpack together as a lethal-force rescue squad that announces doom to any town that keeps them from Wade. With this imminent attack acting as a ticking clock, a posse forms to transport Wade to a secure train bound for Yuma Prison. Seeking reward money to settle his debts, Evans joins the team. Seeking Ben Wade and the chance to prove his mettle, Evans' son follows.
So, it's a "prisoner transport" movie, Old West style. Works for me. You'll not be too surprised, I trust, to learn that it's really about the psychological duel between Crowe and Bale - urbane, witty criminal versus earthy, emotionally-scarred honest farmer; both of whom are carrying baggage and secrets. and, really, thats all there is to "report." There's no straining for shocking twists or groundbreaking metaphor - it's a "set up and go" action picture, plain and simple.
There's exciting chases, big gun battles, encounters with Indian raiders and sadistic Railroad workers, macho battles-of-will and a big climactic shootout in the middle of a not-precisely-lawful town. The stuff Western genre-pics are made of, done well with good actors and a tight little script. In many ways, it reminds me of a "cowboy version" of "The Departed," another deceptively "classical" genre film that became a crowd-pleaser and Oscar winner. Don't even think of it as a "Western," think of it as a "Cowboy Movie." And enjoy.
FINAL RATING: 9/10