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A few years back, it would've been hard to find a film like 3:10 to Yuma, which has the scale and all-round expertise of a big Hollywood movie yet comes to us from an indie distributor, Lionsgate.

3:10 to Yuma updates the classic Western 

A compromise between indies and summer blockbusters

click to enlarge Lock, stock and two sturdy barrels: Christian Bale plays homesteader Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma. - PHOTO BY RICHARD FOREMAN/ LIONSGATE

Though its telegraphic title is an inarguable asset, the new Western 3:10 to Yuma could be called The Bandit and the Homesteader. Russell Crowe plays an outlaw who gets captured after robbing a heavily armed stagecoach. Christian Bale is a desperately strapped rancher who accepts $200 to transport the desperado to a nearby town, where a train will haul him to Yuma and prison. The only potential hitch is the likelihood—make that the ironclad promise—that Crowe's vicious gang will lay waste to anything or anyone that blocks their attempt to rescue him.

This simple premise augurs many things, and James Mangold's movie delivers on most of them quite handily. Besides shoot 'em-ups, suspense and dastardly doings of various stripes, 3:10 to Yuma serves up an interestingly evolving contest of wills—or perhaps I mean psyches—between the violent but world-weary bandit and the put-upon but determined homesteader. Though the two-hour film's narrative sometimes slackens, its climactic scene—which I won't describe—struck me as one of the sharpest, most satisfying endings I've seen in a movie in a long while.

Yes, the film under consideration is a Western of the old-fashioned, spurs-and-sagebrush sort. If that seems strange, it should. These days, it's hard to write about a film like 3:10 to Yuma without noting the obvious: A Western storming into theaters in 2007 is about as anomalous as a stagecoach rattling down I-40.

Hard to believe it's been nearly 40 years since the once-ubiquitous genre left its classic phase, represented by directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, and entered a protracted, alternately brilliant and torturous afterlife associated with auteurs including Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and Sergio Leone. It's been a good while since even that phase began to peter out; so long, in fact, that any fan of the genre might be forgiven for wondering if it had finally reached the cinema graveyard.

3:10 to Yuma, not an instant classic but a film brimming with the genre's traditional satisfactions, left me musing that the Western, happily, may never die. That's partly due to the genre's elemental, mythic, uniquely visual (and quintessentially American) qualities, which will always be alluring to some filmmakers and various audiences. But a more immediate reason has to do with recent changes in the movie business.

As I noted in my year-end piece looking back on 2006, we have conclusively left behind the era when movies came at us from a two-tier system, with dominant Hollywood at the top and scrappy independents at the bottom. These days it's a three-tier system. Hollywood, still at the top, now basically only makes "tentpoles" and would-be blockbusters, i.e. sequels and movies for adolescents. At the bottom, there's still a welter of scrappy independents. But in between these two are the "major" independents, companies turning out movies for adults that sometimes look remarkably like the movies that Hollywood used to make.

A few years back, it would've been hard to find a film like 3:10 to Yuma, which has the scale and all-round expertise of a big Hollywood movie, and features one of the world's biggest stars, Russell Crowe, yet comes to us from an indie distributor, Lionsgate. How come Crowe is working for a non-major? No doubt because Hollywood these days doesn't offer him roles as interesting as the one here. As long as this situation persists, we may see a run of entertainment that resembles what the studios, in their golden age, routinely turned out.

There's another reason that Mangold's film seems to harken back to another era. It's a remake of a 1957 film directed by Delmer Daves and adapted from a story by Elmore Leonard. If you want an interesting weekend diversion—this is a serious suggestion—get together a group of film-interested friends, go see Mangold's movie, then watch the original 3:10 to Yuma on DVD and compare opinions as to their respective merits.

Unless your friends are hard-wired to one of the respective eras, chances are there won't be a strong preference for one film over the other. They're both good. Their differences are largely the differences of movie tastes and practices 50 years apart. Whether or not you want to employ terms like "classic" and "baroque," the black-and-white original is spare, elegantly simple and a crisp 90 minutes long; the color remake is bigger, noisier, more ornately violent and a half-hour longer.

That extra 30 minutes mainly comprises one section in the newer movie. Both films open with the stagecoach robbery, the capture of the bandit and a nighttime stop at the homesteader's ranch; they conclude with an extended sequence in which the two main characters engage in a battle of wits in a hotel room, then make a break for the train station as the bandit's gang bears down on them, guns blazing. Between these two halves, Mangold's film inserts an account of the journey from the homesteader's place to the town, which includes a fight with Indians and other action-heavy challenges.

click to enlarge Peter Fonda, the gruff Pinkerton guard - PHOTO BY RICHARD FOREMAN/ LIONSGATE

Mangold's version features a number of extra characters, including a gruff Pinkerton guard played by Peter Fonda who's wounded in the gang's attack on the stagecoach but survives to take part in the effort to deliver the bandit to justice. The remake also gives a new, Shane-like prominence to the role of the homesteader's elder son (Logan Lerman), who tests the waters of manhood by following his father toward the Yuma train. (This is one of those innovations that strains credulity a bit; surely any real homesteader would insist that the boy stay behind to protect his mother and the ranch.)

In the original film, Glenn Ford plays the bandit and Van Heflin the homesteader. Viewers today might wonder how the stolid, pug-faced Heflin ever got to be a movie star, yet he's actually well-suited to the battered, ordinary settler he plays. The excellent Christian Bale, by contrast, is movie-star handsome and thus must compensate with scraggly hair and beard and Method-y angst. (The writers also give him a gimp leg and a grim Civil War backstory.)

In the choice role of Ben Wade, the bandit, Ford was genially sardonic, crafting a performance at once light-handed and admirably precise. Crowe takes those virtues and adds to them his own gravity, weirdness and stubborn complexity. This is all to the new movie's good; in fact, it pretty much justifies the whole thing, as far as I'm concerned.

Crowe is one of our most accomplished and fascinating actors, yet few movies have offered him roles as rich in poetic ambivalence and multi-leveled motivation as this one. To their credit, the new film's screenwriters fill in much about the character that the earlier film only suggested, if that. They give Wade, among other things, a past full of both violent crime and inquisitive travel; a penchant for drawing; and an acquaintance with the Bible that seems to hint at his own propensities for both sin and judgment, damnation and redemption. Although we don't see it till the very end—this is why that final scene proves so catalytic—he is a man poised on an existential knife's-edge, ready to decide in an eye-blink whether to cast his lot with the angels or the devils.

Andrew Sarris wrote that Delmer Daves, the original's director, "is the property of those who can enjoy stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum." James Mangold, whose last film was the solid Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, can also be cited for his stylistic skill and conviction. Yet I don't think either 3:10 to Yuma deserves Sarris' crack about an intellectual vacuum, because the Western itself is so full of mythic, psychological and dramatic potentialities as to effectively defy that kind of emptiness.

Watching 3:10 to Yuma reminds you of why, most of all, the Western seems destined to survive: More than any other genre, it allows us to contemplate good and evil in their nearly pure states, unclouded by trendy sociological determinism, moral relativism or naturalistic superficiality. At a time when the public understanding of good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and villainy have been Swift-boated toward a point of almost Orwellian inversion, that kind of clarity is a rare and welcome tonic.

3:10 to Yuma opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

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