3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Cast: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Ben Foster
Extras: Audio Commentary, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes

The Western is one of the few distinctly American film genres. Although it has been adopted and enhanced significantly by international filmmakers, its roots lie deeply within American history and culture, often used as allegory for American beliefs and ideology. Because the Old West has been so thoroughly romanticized in both historical records and fiction, it has an almost built-in capacity to reflect contemporary issues in the same way mythology is used to explore pertinent issues from a safe, temporal distance. Since the dawn of the 1970s, Westerns have severely waned in popularity as many of the key themes of the genre (camaraderie, the hierarchical role of men, the struggle between good and evil) have either become outdated or found their way into more immediately accessible genres, particularly the action film. Thus, it is genuinely surprising and refreshing when a film like "3:10 to Yuma" comes along that is such a conventional throwback to the Westerns of the classical era (as opposed to a revisionist exercise) and at the same time an immensely entertaining and contemporary film in its own right.

A remake of Delmer Daves' 1957 film of the same name, director James Mangold's updating takes what is essentially a rather straightforward and traditional story and presents viewers with a thought-provoking examination of the archetypal good guy-bad guy struggle. Christian Bale stars as Dan Evans, a poor cattle rancher struggling to pay off his debts to support his family. With one leg partially amputated, he has grown apart from his wife (Gretchen Mol) and lost the respect of his teenage son, William (Logan Lerman). To quickly earn a large sum of money to retain ownership of his land, Dan volunteers to help the local officials escort notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Yuma, Arizona to be tried. A robber and cold-blooded killer, Ben is quick on the draw and unpredictable, proving to be a handful for his captors. With his posse of loyal killers out to stop the transport, the captors must travel by night and through dangerous Native American territory to get Ben on the 3:10 train without incident.

While Ben is kept hidden in the Evans home for a single evening, young William becomes intrigued by the outlaw. Against his father's orders, he sneaks out of the house and follows the captors as they make their way to the train station, fascinated by Ben's charisma and violent legacy in contrast to Dan's quiet composure and reluctance to act. Noticing Dan's troubled relationship with his son, Ben seizes the opportunity to belittle Dan and play mind games with him, exerting both his physical and intellectual superiority to his captors and flaunting his charismatic wiles for the boy.

The wordplay between Ben and Dan is what makes "3:10 to Yuma" so endlessly compelling. With Ben in handcuffs throughout the majority of the film and Dan handicapped by his amputated leg, both men must rely largely on their wit and intelligence. Thus, they are more psychologically defined and developed than the typical Western hero and villain, each revealing particular flaws and virtues that keep them from being pigeonholed in any set archetype. When we first see Ben, he is sketching a bird in a drawing pad. This unorthodox introduction to a character who is clearly set up as a villain immediately reveals to us something deeper and unexpected. He is not the two-dimensional gunslinger of legend but a distinctly human character, just as easily capable of appreciating beauty as he is of shooting one of his own men if he has to. In a dynamic performance, Russell Crowe makes Ben Wade a fearful presence but is also able to draw upon our sympathies, never letting us forget that he lives by his own code of honor, regardless of how different it may be from our own. Christian Bale is more understated but equally impressive as Dan, bringing out his insecurities and doubts to create a hero who is flawed in his own way. During their dialogues, our sense of loyalty is not sided with one against the other but rather with both for very different reasons. Both men have their own ideologies that we—and they—come to respect throughout the course of the film.

Positioned as the more conventional villain is Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), Ben's loyal cohort and disciple. In Ben's absence, Charlie steps effortlessly into his shoes, inspiring fear in the rest of his posse as they make their way to intercept the captors' mission. Unlike his superior, he is an undeniably corrupt young man, nearly psychopathic in his violent tendencies. Ben Foster plays him with a flamboyance and swagger that is compulsively arresting. Charlie, like traditional Western characters, seems to exist in a world where people are either good or bad, and he revels in his badness. The juxtaposition of his scenes with those between Ben and Dan brings out an interesting comparison of two different views of morality—Charlie's black-and-white worldview and the more nuanced world of Ben and Dan where everyone exhibits various shades of gray.

I am not familiar with either Delmer Daves' original film version or Elmore Leonard's 1953 short story upon which both movies are based, but I can whole-heartedly affirm that James Mangold's film is not the least bit dated. His examination of the moral complexities of his two main characters makes this an intriguingly timely as well as timeless story. The relationship that is forged between the two men who most reasonably should be enemies raises "3:10 to Yuma" above the standard Western saga to a more thoughtful character study of two men dealing with their own inadequacies. Yet, lest this sound too overly sophisticated, there is enough action and gripping suspense to keep viewers' hearts accelerated. Make no mistake, this is an action picture of the highest order, with several wild, old-fashioned shootouts decked with blazing bullets and spurting blood. The climactic gunfight is a bloody and enthralling set piece worthy of the Western legacy. Mangold's gift as a storyteller is his ability to take what is essentially a very commercial film and convey a deeper message through it without hitting audiences over the head with it. He makes creative use of the Western's allegorical qualities to address the relevant issue of looking beyond stereotypes at the human beneath, while gussying the film up with supreme action and adventure.

Lions Gate Home Entertainment brings "3:10 to Yuma" to DVD in a solid presentation, starting with a gorgeous 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The flawless picture is supported by excellent color saturation, fine contrast, and rich black levels. I detected no grain or artifacting. Phedon Papamichael's cinematography is one of the movie's strongest assets, and it is beautifully done justice here. Warm colors are prominent throughout, particularly reds and browns, and they are vibrant on this DVD. This is a wonderful visual showcase.

Likewise, the audio is presented thrillingly in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track that pits us right in the middle of the action. The shootouts are enhanced greatly by the use of surround, as bullets seem to blaze around the room with extreme clarity and sharpness. Voices sound natural and smooth. The fantastic Western score by Marco Beltrami is all the more riveting on this track. You could not ask for a better standard definition treatment than this.

James Mangold provides a screen-specific audio commentary track for the film, bringing out some interesting thoughts on the film and production stories, including the changes he made from the original film and short story. He also discusses the Western genre to some extent, mostly in relation to where this movie fits in. It is a very straightforward commentary, perhaps a bit dry but never boring, and Mangold imparts some good information.

A trio of featurettes follow, starting with "Destination: Yuma." This 21-minute making-of segment presents interviews with Mangold, the cast and crew. A good amount of behind-the-scenes footage is shown throughout. Some information is repeated from the commentary, but this is an entertaining look at the production nonetheless.

"Outlaws, Gangs and Posses" is an educational doc, in the History Channel mode, that looks at some historical outlaws of the Old West and how their true stories compare to the legends and cinematic depictions that have come about in their wake. The feature is guided by three historians and researchers lending their knowledge on Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the gunfight at the OK Corral, among other famous stories. Lasting 13 minutes, this is not greatly detailed, but it is definitely interesting and appreciated.

At six minutes, "An Epic Explored" features Mangold and crew again, this time discussing the virtues of using the Western to explore current themes. This is the least substantial of the featurettes, but it is not bad at all.

Seven deleted—or more accurately, extended—scenes wrap up the disc. In general, these are very short and dialogue-driven, and it is not hard to see why they were cut. The last scene is the only genuinely new scene and the most interesting. Mangold explains in the film's commentary why it was ultimately removed.

I was pleasantly surprised by the impact this remake of "3:10 to Yuma" had on me. I am not generally a huge fan of Westerns, but James Mangold has definitely updated a rather (in my opinion) dated genre with this enjoyable and compelling film. The action is heart-pounding and suspenseful, but it is the characters that command our attention. With a stellar cast to back him, Mangold weaves a smart allegory of the possibility to forge bonds with people we initially didn't think it possible to find similarities with. By disposing of the traditional black-and-white view of Western opponents, the film challenges viewers to consider the possibility that those whom we alienate and label as enemies may be more like us than we could ever imagine, if only we take the time to understand them and to reevaluate our own weaknesses.