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Photograph by Richard Foreman
CAN'T WE GET ALONG?: Renaissance-man bad guy Russell Crowe attempts to negotiate his way out of some sticky business in '3:10 to Yuma.'

3:10 to Yuma

Russell Crowe as gun-toting Renaissance man

By Richard von Busack

If 3:10 to Yuma becomes a hit, it will be because of the power of the Western themes themselves and not because of the social-commentary and bric-a-brac with which director James Mangold (Walk the Line) loads this film.

A debt-harried, maimed Civil War vet, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), is ranching an arid patch in southern Arizona. As the film begins, his barn is burned by regulators from the Southern Pacific railroad, who want him to sell out his property. Evans doesn't shoot the marauders, which seems like weakness to his chafing adolescent son Will (Logan Lerman), a 14-year-old intoxicated by Western dime novels.

Evans has no room for adventure, though. His youngest son is gasping with tuberculosis and he has to face the disappointment of his weary wife, Alice (maybe they should have found someone wearier than Gretchen Mol). Having to raise some money fast, Evans must herd his scrawny cattle into town.

Nearby, the actual stuff of dime novels is going on. The fearsome Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) has engineered a robbery of the Wells Fargo stagecoach. His pinprick-eyed psycho lieutenant Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) helps shoot the survivors. Among them is the hired gun Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), who was protecting the coach's gold.

Evans and Will stumble into the crime scene; Wade and his bandits help themselves to the rancher's horses. Though gut-shot at close range, McElroy survives the attack. After a quick operation by the town's veterinarian (Alan Tudyk of Serenity, good and droll as always), Evans helps organize the capture of Wade.

An unsteady posse heads out: one broken rancher; one bespectacled horse doctor, one high-handed weakling of an SP executive (Dallas Roberts) and one wounded lawman. They escort Wade to the railhead at Contention, to ship him off on the 3:10 train to the territorial prison at Yuma. Wade's armed and dangerous gang remains at large, ready to spring him during the trip across the Apache-haunted open country.

Elmore Leonard's story fueled the original film version, a minor but efficient oater of 1957 starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. I interviewed Leonard once and asked him why he had stopped writing Westerns, wondering if the social changes of the late 1960s had pushed him into more morally ambiguous work than Westerns provided. Leonard said that in his opinion the Westerns dried up strictly because of firepower itself. Once audiences had heard automatic weapons, they were less interested in six-shooters. Well, Mangold has that avenue covered, and the final shootout is a 101-gun salute, with a plywood town getting splintered.

Just as Vietnam kept intruding into Westerns from 1965 to the early 1980s, Mangold puts in a bit of Iraq: an Abu Ghraib torture sequence and a speech of disillusionment from Evans, who believes that he lost his leg in a war that decided nothing and got paid chump change from the government as well.

All this is distracting enough, but Mangold gets caught in the fork of having too much identification building up between the two protagonists. Wade grows in Renaissance-man status, waxing philosophical and doing little pencil sketches between murders. At some point, Mangold must have been struck by worrying that the audience would be disappointed if either good or evil triumphed.

Mangold does deliver enough of the essential pleasures of the Western so that much of 3:10 to Yuma works on the basic level. The film has a clear path to success, though. This has been the cinematic summer of "bromance" (to use a word coined by David Carnie to describe Knocked Up, Superbad, Chuck & Larry, etc.), and Crowe and Bale's moral duel comes to this year's kind of crowd-pleasing ending. Ultimately, the last line ought to be the one Joanne Dru delivered in Red River: "Anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other."

Movie Times 3:10 TO YUMA (R; 117 min.), directed by James Mangold, written by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, based on a story by Elmore Leonard, photographed by Phedon Papamichael and starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, plays countywide.

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