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Sunday, September 09, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

As I was sitting in the audience at the Essex Cinemas waiting for the new movie 3:10 to Yuma to begin, I found myself thinking about how optimistic people were back in the 1870s. Imagine thinking they could schedule a train to arrive at 3:10 pm somewhere out west when there was so much that could go wrong. Besides the rudimentary machinery the trains must have been, there were robbers, wayward cattle, hostile Indians, bad weather, and poorly laid or maintained tracks to contend with, yet they still strove for that magical ten minutes after the hour arrival time. One hundred and thirty forty years later and we are lucky if an airline or train doesn’t just cancel a trip on us altogether without notice because of some pissy-drunk drama queen going all nuclear in a St. Louis airport over some ticket agent scuffing his Versace bag that ends up disrupting the entire nation’s travel plans. It’s enough to make you wish it was 1870 again. Or not.

Actually, I’d probably opt for the not after seeing
3:10 to Yuma, which is a great movie ~ a western, if you can believe it, an honest-to-goodness-western! ~ starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Don’t get me wrong. 3:10 to Yuma is a terrific flick, one of the best westerns of the last fifty years, and it is a vast improvement over the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. It’s just that I don’t think I was meant to live in the old west. Or the old east. At least not until indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and Frette 1200 thread count sheets were a standard part of life.

Just look at what 1870 offered Christian Bale. Bale (Batman Begins) plays Dan Evans, a down-on-his-luck rancher who is so far behind on his payments to the man who owns the land he farms on that the landlord rides by one night and burns down his barn just for giggles and as a reminder to Evans that he is about to lose everything. Meanwhile, Dan’s cattle are dying in a summer’s long drought, his younger son, Mark (Benjamin Petry; The Astronaut Farmer), has tuberculosis, his elder son William (Logan Lerman; The Number 23), thinks he is a complete failure, his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol; The Ten) has turned a cold shoulder (and every other body part) his way, and even Dan himself is laboring in self-pity because he lost part of his leg in the Civil War for no good reason. Basically, there appears to be nowhere to go but in the ground or up, so when fate intervenes and Dan is given the opportunity to join a posse of deputies accompanying a notorious stagecoach robber to the prison train in Yuma he thinks he has hit the jackpot.

What Dan did not expect to find in this seemingly one-note task was that the prisoner was going to have such a pervasive effect on him in any number of ways. When Ben Wade (Russell Crowe; A Good Year) is first captured, he is hidden for an evening at the Evans’ home as a ruse to trick
Wade’s gang into following a decoy stagecoach towards an Army fort where the story was put out that Wade would be hanged. On this night, though, Wade actually spent his time in charming conversation with both Alice and William, seeming as slithery as a serpent in gaining their sympathies or at least feelings of regret about his upcoming death. While all of this was going on, I kept wondering how it was that Dan looked like a ragged dog chew that had been dragged through the desert for days while his wife looked as if she had just stepped out of a Calgon commercial. Her hair, her make-up (understated, as one would expect of a long-suffering yet flawlessly beautiful wife) and her dress was impeccable albeit simple. The same for her sons, who obviously were the product of virgin births, sitting there clean and looking almost Amish-like while their father looked ready to star in the next Geico caveman ad. Dan, already insecure of his place in his wife and son’s heart, thus began this tour of duty with an edge.

What follows is a superb tale with many layers of angst to be explored as the arrogant and self-proclaimed “conscienceless” Wade reveals parts of himself to Dan that are alternately cruel and self-serving or conversely helpful and, in one case, life-saving to Dan and his party.

The trip across the desert is fraught with dangers. There is Wade’s gang, which discovers the trick almost too late to catch up, but only almost. Led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster; X-Men: The Last Stand), who definitely would not be one you’d want to have babysit your puppy, this rugged group of outlaws would sooner kill you than talk to you, and they prove that many times during the course of the film. The body count is high in this one, and it is not meant for the kids. I’m not even sure it is for those who have ever sponsored gun control legislation. It just might make your eyes bleed. Also bearing down on the posse with Wade are a group of cranky Apaches who have not agreed to the peace treaty hammered out by the railroad company and their tribe a few years earlier, and then there is an entirely different band of men who have recognized Wade and want to claim him (and any reward involved) for themselves. In other words, it’s just like politics today. If it is going to line your pockets and make you look good, then everybody will want to take credit. Fortunately, Wade was never seen in any men’s room stalls, so he is clear of those rumors. All he has hanging (hanging? Get it!?) over his head are 22 counts of robbery and a few dozen murders. But definitely no suspicious toe-tapping!

For a touch of old-time western nostalgia like Shane, it should come as little surprise that 13-year-old William disobeys his father and covertly follows him and the other men on their journey, which leads to a secondary plot all about father and son bonding, growing up, taking responsibility, and, ultimately, about forgiveness and understanding. No offense to anyone, but I found myself thinking by the end that as good as Bale was as Dan I just wanted to see him go “all John Wayne” on Wade’s ass even if it didn’t follow the “politically-correct “ “We Are the World” message of today when it comes to parenting. You know Dr. Phil would’ve told him to. And so would I.

3:10 to Yuma is a walloping adventure and a real chance to see just how good Crowe and Bale are as actors. Not once during the film did it occur to me that our “all American cowboys” were being played by an Australian and a Welshman. Now that alone deserves kudos and a look-see.

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