(4 out of 5 stars)
Few images are as iconic as the Western gunslinger. A lone man rides into town, mysterious and unknown. He sits down at the saloon to order a drink. Before long, trouble arrives and this hero focuses on what he does best — killing the bad guys and rescuing the girl. This image, made famous by actors like John Wayne, portrays a sensationalized version of the Wild West. Although entertaining, it doesn’t quite ring true.
On the flipside, the Westerns about the frontiersmen, while honest and genuine, are often slow, requiring tremendous amounts of patience. Fortunately, director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) understands this and strikes a balance between the real and sensationalized with his latest film, “3:10 to Yuma.” The result is an entertaining film that feels authentic while never slowing to a crawl.
Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is the film’s down-on-his-luck rancher, who tries to make an honest living in the town of Bisbee, Ariz. After a group of men he owes money threatens his family, Evans goes to town to reason with Sheriff Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts). There he encounters Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a notorious outlaw who has robbed over 20 money carriages along the Southern Pacific Railroad. Having just robbed another carriage, Wade and his men come to town for a drink but slipped up and Wade is caught. Butterfield orders him to be escorted to Contention City. There, he will board the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison, where he’ll be executed. Seeing an opportunity to earn some much-needed money for his ranch, Evans accepts an offer and makes the journey to Yuma, where he must fight off Wade’s gang as they try to rescue their leader.
What makes “3:10 to Yuma” a truly entertaining experience is the characters. Everyone from old bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) to Wade’s lethal right-hand man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) has personality and depth, and any of them could have led this film. That’s not to say that Evans or Wade is lacking. Evans evokes sympathy for his plight back home, but you can’t help but wonder why he chose this dangerous job to make a buck. And while Wade is the leader of a ruthless gang, more often than not he helps his captors rather than trying to escape. Mangold does a great job of never quite letting on what drives these characters, allowing the viewer to speculate up until the film’s climax.
“3:10” also offers a well-paced mix of story and action, with neither one dominating the film. The journey from Bisbee to Contention is neither too long nor too short — and it pulls the viewer in, never letting go.
The same level of immersion can be found in the film’s setting. “3:10” looks and feels like it was shot in the Wild West, not filmed on a sound set somewhere in Hollywood. Bisbee is small, quaint and definitely looks as if it has fallen on some hard times. The dry, barren landscape paints a perfect Western backdrop, with slow shots of mountains rolling through the horizon and canyons jutting deep into the ground. Mangold utilizes the setting perfectly to help enhance the story, adding more depth and personality to a film already full of both.
A good Western will transport you back to that time and place, with interesting and unique characters that the viewer can connect to, regardless of that difference in time. In that regard, “3:10 to Yuma” delivers in spades. It is an excellent film that both entertains and immerses the viewer, reminding us once again why the Western will always be a cornerstone of American cinema. It’s a deep, rewarding experience, filled with rich characters and an exciting story that’s definitely a must see.