Teaching an old horse new tricks

Westerns are America.

As much as baseball and apple pie, the genre has been the underappreciated backbone of American cinema for more than a century and is as much a part of this country as any of the other cherished traditions. From the first cinematic camera pan in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to the domination of the 1992 Academy Awards with Unforgiven, Westerns have been America’s own personal stamp on the world of movies.

Writer and director Sergio Leone rejuvenated the Western in the midst of its prime by taking away the crisp white shirts and starched blue jeans and adding a violent, gritty realism in his 1966 epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The craze quickly caught on, producing classics such as The Wild Bunch and True Grit and would act as the inspiration for Unforgiven and the popular HBO series Deadwood many years later.

3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 Delmer Davis film, follows in the footsteps of the relentlessly violent and savagely raw Western that Leone gave birth to and infuses a new excitement into the genre that hasn’t existed this century.

Fairly closely following the original’s plot (which was based on an Elmore Leonard short story), 3:10 to Yuma tells the story of a hard-up cattle rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) who is hired to join the team determined to bring the infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a train that awaits to take him to Yuma prison to be tried and executed. This leads to a physical and psychological struggle as Evans must outthink the cunning and elusive Wade while protecting himself and his young son from Wade’s bloodthirsty gang who desperately want their leader back.

As psychologically manipulative as it is downright exhilarating, director James Mangold’s reinvention of Davis’ small-time classic uses its dark edge to steady itself among its forefathers of the genre while giving its characters the perfect blend of sociological dependency to keep them from becoming the cliche of your grandfather’s cowboys. When they’re not trying to kill each other, Bale and Crowe play the most intriguing game of psychological cat-and-mouse since Clarice Starling sat across from Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs.

Still, the violence remains and the blood flows aplenty. The thrill of the gunfight and the excitement of the quick draw remains, keeping the authentic Western atmosphere in touch while adding a contemporary style to ensure the attention of the mainstream audience never strays too far. The fighting is gritty and realistic, though the final showdown raises questions about Bale’s running and jumping – his character supposedly lost part of his leg in the Civil War.

Bale and Crowe each stand out with two well-developed performances. Bale, with a cold and cynical determination, finds a raw edge in Crowe so that you’re always wondering if and when he’s going to snap and unleash a world of pain on the smooth-talking gunslinger. Crowe, on the other hand, glides through the film with a charming smile, spurting out Bible quotes one minute while shooting people down the next. His charismatic antihero is despicably likable as you find yourself cheering for both of these characters to succeed, even though they stand on opposite sides of a very fine line.

Still, it is the menacing Ben Foster’s dive into the depths of Hell as Crowe’s right-hand man that demands your attention when he is on screen. Much like he did in Alpha Dog earlier this year, Foster has proven time and time again that his screen time is precious as he holds his own among heavyweights Bale and Crowe.

3:10 to Yuma is just what the Western genre needs to prove that it is, and always will be, a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Blending deeply psychological mind games with unrelenting authentic Western violence, Mangold’s vision of the West is set to remind us just where America came from. America is the dirt under the boots, the blood-stained shirt, the dusty hat. America is the Western.

Welcome. And don’t forget to watch your back.

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