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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007 03:58 pm

The way to Contention

3:10 to Yuma showcases compelling performances by Bale and Crowe

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Untitled Document Hollywood studios rarely bankroll Westerns anymore, and when they do the film in question is often a revisionist view on what is arguably an exhausted genre. Perhaps the most refreshing element in James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma is that it isn’t concerned with presenting a gritty, realistic version of the old West. No, the director is intent on presenting a solidly made old-fashioned oater, and he succeeds handsomely, thanks in large part to his strong two leads and a refreshingly complex script from Michael Brandt and Derek Haas that improves on Halsted Welles’ earlier version by adding intriguing backstories to the characters and introducing a major new player. Christian Bale is Dan Evans, a down-on-his-luck farmer trying to scrape out an existence on the arid plains of Arizona with his long-suffering wife (Gretchen Mol) and two sons. Haunted by his experience in the Civil War, which left him with a wooden leg and a mind filled with self-doubt, he longs to prove to himself that he’s capable of providing for his family and appear heroic in the eyes of his older son, William (Logan Lerman). An unsympathetic landlord and a prolonged drought aren’t making things any easier for him. However, a chance at redemption presents itself to Dan in a strange guise. Happenstance causes him and his boys to cross paths with outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang one day while they’re in the middle of a holdup. Known throughout the territory as an unscrupulous badman, the thief allows the Evanses to go on their way, only to have Dan encounter them later in town, where he helps apprehend Wade. Intent on getting the criminal to the federal penitentiary in Yuma as soon as possible, Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), representative for the railroad that Wade has held up more than 20 times, puts together a ragtag group to escort the crook to Contention, Ariz., to catch the 3:10 train. Making up the group are a grizzled, wounded bounty hunter (Peter Fonda), a veterinarian who can’t shoot straight (Alan Tudyk), a cocky deputy (Girard Swan), and Evans, who desperately needs the $200 promised him for making the trip. As one would expect, the trip to Contention is fraught with peril, what with Wade’s gang in pursuit and the charming criminal knocking off his captors, one by one, whenever he sees an opening. And just when the film appears to be content with following the rote pattern of so many Westerns before it, Mangold and company have William catch up with his father, offering to help while putting himself in danger. Wade realizes the boy’s hero worship and tries to win him over. What ensues is not only a battle over the boy’s soul but also Evans’ desperate effort to become worthy of his son’s respect. Evans and Wade are both fascinating characters, and Bale and Crowe do a wonderful job with them, taking the shades of gray that Brandt and Haas have given them and making them real. Bale has shown again and again that he can combine desperation with heroism as well as anyone working in the movies today. His performance here is no exception. Crowe, for his part, is obviously having fun here, charming and wily, a gentleman gunslinger who quotes the Bible, sketches wildlife, and kills without mercy. These two characters are aptly matched, which helps the film achieve a degree of believability it wouldn’t otherwise have. The film’s climax is a true showstopper, delivering the gunslinging that fans of the genre expect, as well as two twists that end the story not only with a bang but with a decisive moral statement as well.
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