Delmer Daves directed two of the most underrated Westerns from the classic period--"The Last Wagon" (1956) and ""3:10 to Yuma" (1957)--so it doesn't surprise me that one of them was recently remade. When it was first released, "3:10 to Yuma" was compared to "High Noon," and for good reason. Rather than lengthening shadows or ticking clocks sustaining a tension that served as an external reminder of the internal spring of a main character that was wound too tight, "Yuma" offered a date with destiny in the form of a train. Van Heflin played a decent man who needed $200 to save his ranch from drought, and so he took the assignment of escorting a notorious criminal (Glenn Ford) to town and guarding him in the hotel until it was time to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma. As the psychological tension mounts, with outlaw Ben Wade trying to get inside Dan Evans' head, a train whistle sounds in the distance . . . then gets audibly closer, and closer. Outside, like dark clouds building for a storm, Wade's gang drifts into town and sets up shop so they can try to prevent their leader from getting on that train.
It's a simple story by Elmore Leonard that was published as a short story, but it has a strong storyline and main characters. Yet this remake, though less psychological and more action-packed, is at least as good as the original. In some ways, it's even better. Certainly many of today's viewers would find the first film too "talky" and welcome the additional plot twists, action, and characters.
And for a couple of guys from New Zealand and Wales, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale do a fine job of playing cowboy. Each brings depth to his character, and when you add believable Western action, intelligent dialogue (for the most part), and gorgeous cinematography, it makes for a strong Western film in any decade. Perhaps one reason that critics have been gushing "3:10 to Yuma" is the best Western since "Unforgiven" (1992) is that there's a touch of English Bob (as played by Richard Harris in that film) in Crowe's performance to remind them. He's fairly mesmerizing as the calm-but-calculated leader of an outlaw gang, while Bale as the rancher plays it with as much visible fear as bravery. Halsted Welles, who wrote the screenplay to the 1957 film, is credited here along with relative newcomer Michael Brandt, and there was only one exchange when the gang gabs it up in a bar when I found myself thinking, clunky. The rest was solid.
Curiously, you can see the influence of "Brokeback Mountain" at work. If Ben Wade's second in command, a hotheaded psycho named Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), was played any more flamboyantly, he'd be flaming. But he's the kind of psycho you love to hate, and when one of his gonna-be-victims calls him Charlie Princess, why, it's just so precious that you can't help but laugh and forgive.
Credit James Mangold ("Walk the Line") for the maintaining the spirit and central conflict of the original film, while still managing to accommodate a pretty serious (and sometimes hilarious) expansion. The original was 98 minutes long, while this one sprawls to 122 minutes. That could have been disastrous, but to Mangold's (and Brandt's) credit, the additions don't feel fabricated. Just don't think too hard or long about the state of prosthetics in the late 1800s. Bale's character is a Civil War vet who has a peg-leg that attaches to a stump of a leg he got as a war souvenir. As long as you go with the filmmaker's sleight-of-hand and focus on how he lost the leg, you won't notice that for the bulk of the movie (even when he leaps out of a window onto the street below) that peg-leg behaves like the real deal. There may be a hitch in his giddy-yup, but in reality Dan Evans' bad leg probably would have come off more than once.
As tropes go, it's also pretty familiar to have Evans' boy, William (Logan Lerman), think his father a coward, which is much more developed in this remake than it was in the original. I just reviewed "The Legend of Zorro" and saw basically the same thing. All that familiarity takes a little sheen off the luster of an otherwise strong film. Still, "3:10 to Yuma" is character-driven, and that's saying something. No matter how much action you add, if the characters seem as if their decisions and personalities are shaping the narrative, it's going to seem legitimate.
Ultimately, this film's integrity comes from its moral ambiguity, same as the original. The good guy is isn't all good, and the bad guy isn't all bad. And when they act in ways that seem momentarily incomprehensible, the logic behind it is that they see things in each other that they admire. So do we. And that's refreshing.
Though this is a nice transfer, there are a lot of selective-focus frames in this film where one character is sharply delineated and the rest are slightly blurred. There are soft-focus shots, too, where the background is blurred, but this is a director's decision. Look at the figures in focus and close-up and you'll see an incredible amount of detail. The MPEG-4 transfer looks really good, with no edge distortion at all. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1.
The video was impressive, but the 7.1 PCM uncompressed audio was even better. Boy, does this soundtrack rock. The only thing is, I found myself having to turn the sound down during the action scenes, when it seemed to get significantly louder. Otherwise, it's an impressive audio transfer. An additional option is Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX, with English and Spanish subtitles. To my ear, there's a drop-off, but the Surround EX is still a powerful track.
This 50GB dual-layered disc accommodates a bunch of bonus features, but as I said, you have to have Profile 1.1 to access some of the Blu-ray exclusive features, like "Inside Yuma: A feature-length picture-in-picture interactive documentary about the creation of the film that's playable while you watch--on some players. One of our readers let me know that he was able to access it with his Profile 1.0 player, but I couldn't pull up the PIP with mine. Even if you can't access "Inside Yuma," with its intermittent PIP video stream, there are still a ton of features here to make it worthwhile until a firmware upgrade rides over the hill like cavalry to the rescue. "3:10 to Score" delves into the music, while "The Guns of Yuma" gives you a short primer on the real weapons used in the film, "Sea to Shining Sea" takes a look at the transcontinental railroad, and "Outlaws, Gangs and Posses" offers a few talking heads' opinions on bad guys and their ways. There's also a standard making-of documentary that shows a lot of footage of the actual filming, as well as "An Epic Explored" that shows Mangold offering his thoughts about the Western and where this film fits. One of the best features, for fans of Westerns, is an interview with Elmore Leonard, who talks about his other successes as well. But historical buffs will really appreciate the well-done "Historical Timeline of the West," which shows a map with pinpoint locations to the right, text and graphic to the left, and a timeline on the bottom for a kind of 3-D history lesson. It's really well done, I have to say, and one of my favorite features on this disc.
A commentary track with Mangold is pretty standard, but also pretty interesting. This guy has some opinions and he's not afraid to share them, though the whole tone of the commentary track is pretty low-key.
Crowe and Bale turn in dynamite performances in this remake of a Western that was a classic to begin with, and a new classic now. I would agree with those that think this the best Western since "Unforgiven." And it begs the same question now as it did back when "Unforgiven" won the Academy Award: Why aren't people making more Westerns? Mangold says in one of the bonus features that it's because Westerns are no longer a genre--they're a period film. That might make for interesting speculation, but as long as it fulfills all the expectations of the genre films that came before it, "3:10 to Yuma" is still a member of a pretty exclusive club . . . which seems to meet every 10 years or so.