How do you re-invent a tired genre? Quite simple, really: treat the film as if this particular plot was never done before; create three-dimensional characters, put them into realistic situations, and give them just enough screen time to shine without taking away from the story. And finally, if your characters start going through familiar motions (i.e. cliches), treat them with a straight face, giving each of these actions solid motive and reason. Then an old tale will be fresh again. Such is the case with 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of a typical Western movie, which at first glance has nothing new to offer. OK, maybe two things – Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. But only at a first glance. A few minutes into the movie, you know that this is something different, something intelligent, something engaging.
I admit, my biggest draw to this film was indeed the cast – two big shot male stars, who have been playing similar roles in the past, and are finally put head-to-head. Seemed rather formulaic, but we’re all guilty of going to see films just because Mr. X and Mr. Y are in it. We like them both, we don’t care about the film, just want the two actors in the same scene. Remember ‘Heat’, with its much-talked-about coffee shop scene between Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino? Sure, that scene created a lot of buzz and sold the opening weekend tickets, but what made that film timeless and enjoyed by the masses was the rest of it. The cast, the plot, action scenes, archetypes, attention to detail, respectable ending. 3:10 to Yuma is the same deal. You think it’s a familiar territory (Western genre), and you settle in for a comfortable, predictable ride. Except every few scenes the movie hits you over the head with something unique.
Going in detail over the film’s aspects is pointless. The tale itself is old, and so is the setting, and the formula. Good guys are the underdogs; bad guys run the town/village; corrupt authorities look the other way and somebody has to step up and defend the weak, or defend/enforce the law. Except that this particular town has (besides the obligatory saloon/hotel, armory, sheriff’s hq) a vet clinic, a few houses, a brothel – all with their own inhabitants, with its own rules/look and tone. Also, this particular villain has a streak of kindness in him, one that he vehemently denies. Also, this particular hero is a rancher, with a sick kid, and debts beyond belief (here goes almighty motivation). And this particular Western world doesn’t waste bullets. Every shot counts, every target is calculated.
So what do you get in the end? Action scenes that are believable, and not some stupid gratuitous shoot-outs. Heroes and villains that reside in shades of grey, and carry a lot of weight on their shoulders. They don’t just look the weathered part – thanks to outstanding makeup and costumes – they are given reasons to act this way. Peter Fonda and Ben Foster are completely unrecognizable characters, playing against type, creating fully-grown characters, following through with words and body language. Even Alan Tudyk’s character, at first a comic relief, surprises you with his reason for even joining the entire venture. BTW, a big portion of the film involves a 3-day-long convoy of a hardened criminal across the countryside to a train station where he can be booked to a famous Yuma prison. Why the hell does a vet join them (besides being of any medical help), is hard to believe, but Alan explains is swiftly and with a straight face. Because staying in this town and treating sick horses and dogs is boring, and they make quiet patients. He wants a little adventure, a road trip, a getaway for a few days. You look around the town and you believe him.
The main leads, of course, are stellar, but in my opinion, it’s the rest of the film that deserves close attention. The way action scenes have a logical pace, and realistic physics; the way the soundtrack keeps the story moving without standing out; the way a camera pans across a majestic vista, and brings you back into the plot. So many elements in this film could have been boring, or worse, predictable. Whether it’s a credit to director, screenwriter, or editor, 3:10 keeps surprising you, and engaging you with its intelligence, realism, amazing characters and at the same time – that good ol’ Western idealism. You’d think Clint Eastwood was helping behind the scenes.
A mature film, for genre-lovers and just action-lovers. It’s a Western that happens to be about so much more, with little wasted energy, with few bullets, and with a small but effective cast. I’d say the genre is back, and I recommend this to all audiences.