3:10 to Yuma, an ambitious yet mostly lugubriously paced thriller, is director James Mangold's latest foray into the genre of the Western. With his previous film, Walk the Line, Mangold used the life of Johnny Cash as his vessel through which he painted the contemporary American west in all of its musical glory. With Yuma, Mangold works more within the classic confines of the Western genre, and produces an enjoyable, if less prestigious and expertly delivered film, than his biopic of the Man in Black.
Mangold visibly has tried to make a new western landmark out of Yuma, but with the first half of the film he falters. The plot, pacing, and direction plod along as if Mangold simply wanted to film all the scenes he had to, perhaps following some sort of cinematic duty, before finally reaching the exhilarating finale. That's not to say that the overall film lacks luster and ability, however. Mangold maintains an eye for the grandeur of nature and the details of a period, as he exhibited in Walk the Line. Start to finish, Yuma is a strong piece of Western myth, but in the end does little to progress the genre, as the Australian masterpiece The Proposition did last year.
While Mangold's direction lumbers at points, his cast gamely plays their parts to various degrees of accomplishment. Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a farmer who lost his leg in the Civil War and is in jeopardy of losing his family's respect and his land. Bale is an excellent actor in any role, and fills this one with equal amounts of skill and determination. But his character simply doesn't have enough vim and vigor for Bale to wrench about, as he has in his best roles.
Russell Crowe plays the dastardly yet dashing Ben Wade, a wanted criminal who is escorted by Bale's character to the town of Contention for the titular train to the Yuma prison.
Crowe plays Wade with equal parts cold-heartedness and debonair flair, and delivers that juxtaposition in each scene with believability. What Crowe doesn't deliver is a sense that he's doing something adventurous in Yuma; his characterization of Wade seems to rest mainly on parts of his own hard-nosed yet charming persona, merely placed in a western setting.
A name that belonged on the marquee with Bale and Crowe, however, is Ben Foster, who smolders on screen with superb character acting as Wade's second- in- command. While Bale and Crowe turn in almost workman like performances in tandem with a slightly stocky Western-film script, Foster steals scenes left and right, chewing his role with grit and violence, and at times even overshadowing Crowe's performance.
Easily the most exhilarating part of 3:10 to Yuma is the finale, with Bale taking a stand against a town of mercenaries who are determined to murderer him and liberate Ben Wade. It's just a shame the film moseys along until this point is reached. In past films, Crowe and Bale have done their best work when pitched with equal adversaries on screen. And in some select parts of Yuma, that acting ability is driven home when the characters are left to their own devices to turn in brilliant bits of nuanced dialogue.
Overall though, Mangold fails to reproduce the energy and excitement in the rousing finale throughout the rest of his movie, and isn't able to elevate this film to the masterpiece of Western lore that he undoubtedly hoped Yuma would be. It would be unfair to paint Yuma as an un--enjoyable movie, though, because as a bit of gun- slinging escapism, it fits the bill as well as anything else an American director has produced in a while. But without fiercely individual characters throughout, Foster being the exception, the film lacks the cinematic grit that it needed to embolden the sagging genre.