A remake of the Glenn Ford/Van Heflin classic, itself based on an Elmore Leonard short story, “3:10 to Yuma” is as heavy on character as it sounds like it should be, with the added benefits of several decades of Westerns to borrow from to make a rip-roaring adventure around it until it all gets away from director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) in a crashing heap of unlikely motivation and flawed decisions.
It starts off great, with a fantastic armored stagecoach robbery that matches classic Western moments with the craft of modern action cinema, and manages to hit several of the most iconic Western moments, from renegade Apache attack to a chase through railroad tunnels before the final Western town shootout. Judged on its adventure moments alone, “3:10 to Yuma” is as a good a Western as we’ve had in some years.
But, “3:10 to Yuma” wants to be more than that, and that’s both the good and the bad of it. Mangold wants to craft a character piece, not just an adventure movie, examining Ben and Dan and trying to figure out why they are the way they are and letting them bounce off each other, and he’s been gifted with a pair of strong actors in Crowe and Bale who are game to make it work, and an excellent supporting ensemble, particularly Peter Fonda (who seems to be at least partially channeling father Henry) and Alan Tudyk. Unfortunately, Mangold and his screenwriters can’t seem to decide which direction they want the characters to go adversary’s testing each others limits, or grudging road buddies earning each others respect. It’s a dynamic that works to build moments and tension throughout the early parts of the film but goes in the complete opposite direction at the end, and drags “Yuma” off a cliff with it. It’s simply impossible to believe anything Crowe says or does in the last thirty minutes. This character schizophrenia also leaves the film for the most part without a villain, or at least severe confusion about who the villain is. Taken all together, despite all the very good things “Yuma” has to offer, its weaknesses overcome all of its strengths.
It’s been said that all a bad film really needs is a good ending. It’s the cure for all your ills. Unfortunately the reverse is true, a bad ending can sink even the best of films, and “3:10 to Yuma” is sad proof of that.