Director: James Mangold; Screenplay: Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, from a short story by Elmore Leonard
With Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman
Available Jan. 8, List Price $29.95
Every decade or so, the Western that longtime Hollywood staple that died out in the 1970s gets revived by some dogged directors and stars; and every time I write about it as if there might be some life in the old genre yet. And, every time, the movies disappear in the dust of audience indifference, and the Western dies again. Critics might as well pray for the return en masse of the musical, or the heterosexual romantic comedy. Some fine old genres just become extinct.
I wrote the return-of-the-Western story again last year, to herald the coming of two real Westerns 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and a couple of kind-of ones: the Coen brothers' Texas-set crime drama No Country for Old Men and the period oilman epic There Will Be Blood. These last two may well be nominated for Best Picture Oscars; but if either of them ends up being a blockbuster, I'll eat my Stetson hat. As for Jesse James, for which Casey Affleck may be nominated as best supporting actor, it cadged a paltry $3.9 million at the domestic box office. That leaves 3:10 to Yuma, which earned a decent $53.6 million the most for an oater since the Kevin Costner Open Range in 2003.
A remake of a pretty good 1957 Western, Mangold's film is about Dan Evans (Bale), a family man on a failing farm who lost a leg in the Civil War. He sees a payday, and a chance for redemption in his son's eyes, by escorting the killer Ben Wade (Crowe) to justice. Brandt and Haas have opened up the action of Welles' original script to include a trek in which Wade outsmarts or just kills most of his captors; and there are prime supporting roles for Fonda as a no-illusions bounty hunter and for Foster, who's deliciously pernicious as a kill-crazy kid. For the lefties in the audience there's also a hint of Iraq Occupation revisionism: Evans got his wound from friendly fire in the Civil War. But this satisfying film finds its essential heft and depth in the taut face-off between a tortured good man and a charming villain an existential conversation, at gunpoint.
The excellent extras on this DVD include Mangold's informative, eloquent commentary he talks as good as he shoots and making-of shorts of the cast learning how to be cowboys in rough, rapturous New Mexico locations.
On amazon.com's current list of best-selling DVDs, 3:10 to Yuma is the top live-action movie. That pleases and baffles me. I guess a lot of moviegoers don't go any more; they wait for the pictures they're interested in to come on out discs, then watch them at home. But a Western like this ought to be seen on the big screen; it's a film whose landscapes reflect the grand dreams and threatening schemes of its characters. Big movies, proceeding at careful paces, are best appreciated in the dark, in a crowd, with no interruptions, no fast-forward button. A drive-in, if there were any left, would be even better. Westerns are an outdoor genre. You should have to go outside to see them.