The Western rides again: Russell Crowe shines as bad guy in remake of '3:10 to Yuma'

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2007

"3:10 to Yuma"

Lions Gate Entertainment

1 hour, 57 minutes

People love a good bad guy. Rarely is that sentiment truer than in the movies, no matter what genre you pick, and it's especially so in this week's slightly dark, spaghetti-esque western remake "3:10 to Yuma." I find this a little strange, considering that we wouldn't be so quick to love these characters in real life. And we certainly don't aspire to become them. I've never heard a mother tell a burgeoning young sociopath, "It's fine if you steal and hurt the other children, just so long as you maintain an air of civility and speak with a highly developed vocabulary."

Regardless of the inconsistency, however, I fall right in line and, as a result, had a great time at this movie.

Russell Crowe is Ben Wade, an erudite villain with an artist's soul. In the quiet moments before his cutthroats descend upon the stagecoach carrying the railroad's payroll, we see him serenely sitting horseback, sketching the portrait of a hawk, which he leaves for passersby to find. And then the shooting begins.

After dispatching the Pinkertons hired to protect the money, Wade and his men ride into Bisbee, pausing just long enough to relieve rancher Dan Evans and his two boys of their horses. They'll get them back, though. Wade has more scruples than to steal from a broken-down homesteader and his kids.

Also left alive is crusty old bounty-hunter Byron McElroy, who is deemed too worthy an adversary to be shot dead in the dust. Wade's a sport, but he'll soon wish he'd been less charitable when, after stopping to dally with a local barmaid, he's arrested by the local law.

Evans, stung by his first meeting with the famous outlaw, and made desperate by drought and an old Civil War injury, agrees to help take Wade to the train station in Contention, where he'll catch the titular 3:10 to Yuma and a certain date with the hangman. It won't be that easy, however, as the previously mentioned gang of thieves wants their fearless leader back and will stop at nothing to retrieve him.

What follows is a desperate race across the high desert, through Indian-country and miners' camps, with the villains hot on the heels of McElroy, Evans and the rest of the posse.

"3:10 to Yuma," a remake of a 1957 film of the same name, is a triumphant return to the best of the western genre. Solid storytelling, engaging characters and strong acting make it the first good movie of the fall season. Russell Crowe does a fine job in his role as the likeable villain, as does Peter Fonda as angry Pinkerton McElroy. Christian Bale, as the tortured family man Evans, provides another reliably nuanced performance. Bale has been wowing critics for his entire career, since he was a child actor in Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," but has only recently become recognizable to mainstream audiences. Playing Batman will do that for you.

Character actor Ben Foster is adequate as the evil Charlie Prince, Wade's nattily dressed second-in-command. At times he was perfect, vicious and serpentine, though at others I was reminded of the scared kid he's played in most of his other movies. Good for him for branching out, though.

The breakout performance, however, comes from relative newcomer Logan Lerman, as Evan's oldest son. Lerman brilliantly captures his character's crossroads conflict whether to follow his father's honorable but broke-down path or Wade's exciting, decisive, yet ultimately doomed one. Director James Mangold strikes a perfect balance between action and thoughtful character development.

The film has a few faults, though mostly forgivable. The problems in a movie like this are usually plot or character related, and require some simple suspension of disbelief. The biggest problem with the film, however, and it's more of a societal curiosity than a problem, is the question we started with. I don't think, outside of Ted Bundy, people like Ben Wade exist, or have ever existed. To so completely immerse oneself in villainy and remain calm, friendly and composed is pretty unlikely, but we, as a people, want that character to exist. We love Hannibal Lecter and the Godfather. And, as the movie progresses, you fall for Ben Wade, too. Sure he shoots Pinkertons by the dozen, but they're Pinkertons, for goodness sakes. They're corrupt and abusive.

The bad guy, on the other hand, he's the one truly fighting for freedom and the right to live unshackled. I guess in some ways it's a reaction to the inherent mistrust people feel for whatever authority they happen to live under. Luckily, the movies give us an outlet for the more destructive of our tendencies toward rebellion, letting us admire the villain from our seats, rather than riding alongside. Grade: A-

"3:10 to Yuma" is rated R for violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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