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This IS your daddy’s western

By Aaron Zundel

It’s vogue in cinema nowadays to take an old genre, hand it off to a few hip screenwriters and rework it to defy absolutely everything we’ve come to expect. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but more and more it seems that defying expectations is taking the place of good, solid storytelling — especially when it comes to the slew of remakes Hollywood churns out year after year.

A typical studio discussion about such remakes probably goes something like this:

Studio head: “We’re remaking movie X.”

Screenwriter: “No problem. We’ll just stab the audience in the eyes with unorthodoxy and special effects. They’ll be so dazzled by all the new twists they’ll have to give us their ten bucks.”

Studio head: “Brilliant!”

So in a time when it’s incredibly fashionable for filmmakers to defy the tenets of genre, it’s refreshing to see a western such as “3:10 to Yuma” — that is, one that plays it straight.

Directed by James Mangold (“Cop Land,” “Walk the Line”) and based on the 1957 film of the same name, “3:10 to Yuma” is as classic a western as we’ve seen in a long time — the type of western where Peter Fonda can take a bullet to the gut and recover by the next morning.

Oh yes, there are plenty of clichs in “3:10 to Yuma” — explosion-laced gunfights, hostile “Injuns,” whisky shots and even a horse surgeon named “Doc” — but despite this, Mangold has crafted a film thick with character and story. With Russell Crowe and Christian Bale putting in top notch performances — because of the opportunities the pair have to play against one another — “3:10 to Yuma” proves there’s still plenty of mileage left in classical storytelling formulas.

Bale plays Dan Evans, a one-legged rancher whose inability to provide for himself and his family has resulted in strained relationships with both his wife and eldest son. Tired of dealing with unscrupulous loan sharks and his insubordinate son, Dan leaps at the chance to make some quick cash and salvage his pride. For $200, Dan must escort Ben Wade (Crowe), a recently captured outlaw, to the 3:10 train to Yuma, the very train set to take Wade to prison.

Of course, there is a hitch (isn’t there always?) in transporting such a dangerous criminal — Ben Wade’s murderous gang, led now by Wade’s second-in-command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is hot on Evans’ trail, and with the gang hell-bent on rescuing Wade, getting to the train alive becomes increasingly difficult for Evans.

As Prince, Ben Foster is deliciously sadistic and evil. He steals the watches off of dead men and kills at the slightest provocation. In contrast to Wade — who never seems to kill unless someone deserves it — Prince is truly rotten and takes on the role of the film’s real antagonist, sneering and spitting with the all-rotten-toothed bravado of Snidely Whiplash. Foster does an undeniably excellent job in the role, but all the same it’s hard to find believability in his performance — even with a snarly beard, Foster’s just too young and skinny to be taken seriously as a murderous gunslinger.

Crowe does an excellent job in slowly revealing a softer side to Wade, a side that understands the principals of honor and family. “Even bad men love their mommas,” he tells Evans. And while the film is careful to paint Wade as a dangerous felon (he sticks a dinner fork into the throat of an obnoxious guard), it also makes sure we know Wade has a sense of morality by contrasting his actions to Prince’s (such as when Wade refuses to kill an already injured Peter Fonda). With Wade and Evans forced to spend nearly the entire duration of the film together, the pair are given plenty of opportunities to banter with one another and play against the other’s personality, elevating the film’s central, emotional dynamic.

The final 30 minutes of “3:10 to Yuma” turns into an entertaining chess match of sorts — as Evans tries to maneuver around Wade’s gang — before finally devolving into the quintessential western gunfight, with bullets flying everywhere and miraculously hitting nothing.

Unfortunately, for all “3:10 to Yuma” does right, it doesn’t lay quite enough emotional groundwork for Wade’s instantaneous transition in the film’s final act, which comes off as slightly underdeveloped. Even though the inevitable shift is obviously coming (this is, after all, a remake), when the moment finally occurs, Wade’s actual motivations remain slightly murky.

Yet, despite its slightly under-whelming end, “3:10 to Yuma” still brings plenty of good storytelling and old-west action to the screen — something we’ve been without for far too long.

Let’s hope it spawns a revival.

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