If you took everything about Westerns that was ever dramatic, exciting, powerful or stylish, and distilled it down into 122 minutes, you'd probably end up with something that looked a lot like 3:10 To Yuma. Which, by the way, is one hell of a good movie.
It's the story of Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a crippled civil war veteran who is battling to save his unprofitable land and gain the respect of his rebellious son. The opportunity to solve both his problems appears when he is offered a high-paying prisoner escort job, taking murderous bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison.
Unfortunately for Evans, Wade's gang (led by an entertainingly villainous Ben Foster) aim to break their boss free. Joined by his runaway son, and aligned with a steadily depleting pool of allies, Evans finds himself up against nearly insurmountable odds as the arrival of the 3:10 train draws near, and must come to understand why he is doing what he is doing and what really matters to him in life.
3:10 To Yuma is filled with all those themes that Westerns have always handled so well: duty, justice, honour, revenge, manhood, and the relationships between fathers and sons. In less talented hands that could all add up to a macho gun-fest with nothing much to say, but here they're handled sensitively and stirringly.
There's regular violence throughout the film, and it's always shocking. Not shocking in the dinsoaurs-burst-through-windows horror sense, but shocking in a way that conveys that violence is never something anyone is really prepared for. Shoot-outs start with deafeningly loud and brutally startling gunshots, and murders happen suddenly and before anyone can react. Characters are well fleshed-out throughout, and even minor roles are invested with a suprising degree of humanity.
This version is a remake of the 1957 film of the same name. It's directed by James Mangold, whose previous offerings include the critically successful Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line, as well as the much less wonderful horror flick Identity. Mangold is at the top of his game here; he absolutely nails the essence of the Western genre, and balances action and violence skillfully against characterisation and psychological suspense.
Both Crowe and Bale are perfectly cast and deliver excellent performances. Ben Foster (most recently memorable as Angel in X-Men 3) is also a stand-out appearance as Wade's second in command. Sci-fi fans may also appreciate Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) in a minor part as a doctor-slash-veterinarian.
The musical score is absolutely perfect, evoking all the best themes of the genre while remaining original and attention-grabbing. That's surprising, as it's by Marco Beltrami, best known as a composer for B-grade horror and action flicks (Mimic, xXx: State of the Union, Blade 2, Resident Evil). Beltrami distinguishes himself here with music that stands comparison with the works of Ennio Morricone or Elmer Bernstein.
Ultimately, 3:10 to Yuma is not just a good Western - it's a very, very good movie. It's the sort of movie that will make you want to watch more Westerns, and will remind you of why this genre was so popular for such a very long time. It's absolutely not surprising that it's garnered critical acclaim wherever it's gone, yet it simultaneously holds a lot of entertainment value for less demanding audiences. This is cinema done well, and if Hollywood makes more films like this we'll be well served this year as a viewing pubic.