What makes a great movie? Our answer to that question has changed over the years. Since the '80s, the line between popcorn "movies" and serious "films" has increasingly broadened. The fall belongs to studio and indie boutique Oscar bait; the rest of the year is an endless summer of popcorn cash cows: comedies, horror movies, and action pictures considered juvenile, disposable, or artistically suspect. But art and entertainment didn't used to be mutually exclusive, and many of the movies now considered cinematic classics were broadly accessible entertainments far from the gloomy, earnest pictures considered Oscar shoo-ins today.
James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma is a great movie. A superlative remake of Delmer Daves' classic 1957 Western (and its source, an Elmore Leonard short story), Mangold's film succeeds brilliantly as a propulsive action film, a tight genre yarn with ever-escalating plot complications and serious eye appeal in its location work. It's also an unapologetic morality play and character study that digs deeply into the ethos of Western masculinity.
The film's excellence as a genre movie never comes at the cost of character or ideas: rather, 3:10 to Yuma immediately establishes interesting characters and moral dilemmas through behavior, in trying situations the audience can likewise enjoy as superb action sequences. And so it goes for two gripping hours so richly realized you won't want them to end.
Facing bankruptcy, emasculated rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) can hardly look his wife and two sons in the face anymore. "I'm tired of the way that they look at me," he tells his wife (Gretchen Mol). "I'm tired of the way that you don't." Rendered impotent in front of his boys first when his stables are torched by creditors and then at the scene of a stagecoach robbery, Evans' simmering frustration begins to boil. Dan tells his teenage son William, "I'll take care if this." "No, you won't," Will responds, accusatory fire in his eyes.
The homicidal leader of the criminal gang is Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a living legend glorified in the dime novels read by naive William (Logan Lerman). Unlike Will, Wade immediately sees something in the upright Dan, especially when the rancher enables Wade's capture. When Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) of the Southern Pacific Railroad offers cash to anyone willing to transport the company's public enemy #1 to justice (a holding cell on the 3:10 train to Yuma), Evans' poverty and his will consent to the double opportunity to reassert his masculinity to his family.
The posse includes grizzled Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), a bounty hunter under contract with the Pinkertons; inexperienced and nervous-by-nature Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk); and Tucker (Kevin Durand), one of the arsonists hired by the deed-owner of Evans' land. Getting Wade to Contention and the 3:10 to Yuma will mean navigating a risky mountain pass and avoiding Wade's gang. In particular, Wade's most trusted and most psychopathic deputy, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), resolves to do anything in his power to spring his boss.
The screenplay is credited to original screenwriter Halsted Welles and the contemporary team of Michael Brandt & Derek Haas, but the script also bears the unmistakable imprint of Mangold, who studied the 1957 film under director Alexander Mackendrick. Mangold picks up on every idea in the original film and dramatically nutures each, making the morality yet grayer and ratcheting up the tension. He and his screenwriters also expand the action in sensible and thrilling ways that never seem disproportionate to the story.
At its core, 3:10 to Yuma is about what it means to be a man, particularly a man of the Old West. Set during post-Civil War expansion, the story sizes up the lawless, Darwinist code of Wade ("It's man's nature to take what he wants") and the principled stance of Evans, who puts his family first but resists sacrificing his morality for any reason. Wade is a ruthless criminal not above murder, but he too has his standards: he likes to think that he only kills assholes; Evans, too, is no stranger to killing, as a Union Army sharpshooter left emotionally and physically damaged by the War Between the States.
The film largely explores how the two men—two sides of the same masculine coin—size each other up and develop a surprising mutual respect, whether at odds or working together to survive. As in the original film, their ideological tussling climaxes in a hotel room in the town of Contention as the clock ticks away to 3:10 and Wade tempts Evans with easy money. But the film is also about how young Will's soul hangs in the balance: he's drawn to the manly Wade, but learns plenty of unexpected life lessons by following the progress of his father.
It should go without saying that 3:10 to Yuma also benefits immeasurably from the participation of Crowe and Bale, two of the finest actors working today (and ably supported by a crack supporting cast). Here's hoping that audiences, critics, and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences see 3:10 to Yuma for what it is: an unpretentious action drama that provokes thrills and thoughts in equal measure.