There you go. What could possibly go wrong? It's an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story. Christian Bale is in it. Peter Fonda is in it. Russell Crowe is in it. It's directed by tasteful safe pair of hands James Mangold, who just made a perfectly good and somewhat Oscar winning biopic of Johnny Cash. That's a pretty sold assembly of people to bring together when you want to revive the Western and make it all bleak and modern. Short of ringing up Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock, neither of who seem to be busy just at present, I don't know what more you could do. What, I ask again, could possibly go wrong?
For absolutely ages, nothing does go wrong. Christian Bale is perfectly convincing as a rancher at the end of his tether. As always with Christian, you worry a little about him. His character has only one leg. Did Christian take out the hacksaw, or just content himself with saying, "Hell, just this once I'll try acting."? Russell Crowe, appearing in the role of Russell Crowe, is as compulsive as ever. I'm not always sure if Russell is acting, and I'm pretty confident I'd rather not be stuck in a lift with him, but he's got star quality in insane quantities. If you're looking for someone to play a very violent and oddly charming man, you can pretty much stop looking round about the time he picks up the phone and says he's not busy. So there's Russell, playing Ben Wade, a very bad man. And Christian Bale playing Dan Evans, a very tense rancher. it's a western, so they have these conveniently short and easy to remember names. Just in case they get bothered with the whole name thing, they also have contrasting hats. And through a series of chances and coincidences which are honestly a lot less implausible that almost anything which happened in Gladiator, Dan decides his best shot at saving his farm is to take $200 to help escort Ben to the 3:10 to Yuma.
I have to admit that I had a bit of a problem round about this point. The Southern Pacific railroad is presented as a kind of overarching villain of the piece. Ben Wade has been whiling away the time robbing them of hundreds of thousands of dollars (not to mention, as he points out himself, all the lives he took in the process) and the SP are accordingly peeved. So they want to take him to Yuma prison, where he will be hanged. (Giving the SP the full benefit of the doubt, I'm going to assume that the prison has a judge hanging around so that they can have a trial of sorts). So far, so slightly better than gunning him down like a dog in the street. But wonderfully, although SP is still hammering together its railway network, it's somehow had the resources to have a regular service to Yuma prison, the 3:10 no less. Daily train service to a jail? Where's the money in that?
Back in the manly world of people with short names (honestly, the less we're supposed to identify with the characters, the longer their names get), the posse get underway. And from the outset they're pursued by Wade's gang. Wade's gang are presented to us as some sort of ne plus ultra of outlawry, but it's hard to get away from the notion that they're just plain stupid. We first meet them when they hold up a payroll stagecoach. Four of the gang get shot dead in the course of the holdup, which is more like a running battle with an early and badly thought out tank, and then Wade shoots one of his own men when he's dumb enough to get taken hostage by one of the stagecoach guards. Leaving Wade and seven sidekicks out of the gang. If I'd been one of the survivors of that particular piece of free enterprise, I'd have been thinking about a career change. A one-third chance of getting killed, and no apparent promotion track? Got to be easier ways to make money, even in the old west. And their supposed criminal mastermind leader, despite knowing the ground and having been told how the stage is armed has so little in the line of a plan for the hold up that he's forced to improvise his way out by triggering a cattle stampede in front of the stage - using Dan's cattle, of course.
I think most halfway sensible bad men, on hearing that this genius had fallen into the hands of John Law while slaking his manly lusts on a bar-girl, would have shrugged, fallen to squabbling over who was now in charge and never given their erstwhile leader another thought. These clowns, egged on by the second in command, Charlie Prince, set out on a crusade to kill everyone in the Old West until they get their boss back. I just don't get it. Hell, if they wanted violent, stupid, manly leadership, Charlie's way better at it than Ben ever was. Charlie's an idiot's idiot. His principal motivation seems to be unfocused hatred for everything he comes across, all of which he shoots. If it weren't for the age of the source material, I'd swear he was based on the sinister bald guy in Diva, who hates everything and shoots as much of it as he can hit.
So a small band of people have to convoy Ben to Contention (Imagine the city fathers' meeting that came up with that as name to encourage investment) so that he can catch the 3:10 to Yuma. The band has no sooner assembled than we think "You're all SO dead." I especially liked the attachment to the party of the local vet. His inevitable death comes inevitably just as he celebrates his new found toughness in whacking out someone with a shovel in an effort to save Wade from being lynched. The last thing I saw where a group of people had been so painstakingly assembled to get picked off one by one was Saving Private Ryan. Tragically, Dan Evans' little party doesn't feature a company typist.
Much adventure ensues as the band is whittled down to Wade, Evans, Evans' son (inevitably drawn into the chase so that he can dither between the two male leads and their influence) and the railroad company lackey Butterfield (see what I mean about the names). And in the end they get to Contention, with an hour to go before the train arrives, just as Charlie Prince and the boys finish killing off everything larger than their collective brain between Bisby and Contention, and show up on the horizon. And it's down to Dan Evans to drag Ben Wade the last hundred yards to the train through a hail of lead.
And this is where it all falls apart. Because the odds are stacked against Dan to an impossible degree. The Marshall and his men have surrendered, only to be gunned down in the streets by Prince. The townsfolk have been offered $200 to help Prince shoot anyone who tries to move Wade to the train. Realistically, with seven of the deadliest idiots in the Old West and every moron in town with a gun pitted against him, Dan is going to make it about two feet before doubling in weight from all the lead that's somehow gotten into his system. Because this is a western, and for no other reason that I can think of, Dan tries it anyway.
So far, so stupid. But up until now, you could buy the whole thing in terms of the Code of the West. And all along the way, it's been drummed into us. Wade is a bad bad man, and Evans is a well-meaning gimp with nearly as much sense as one of his own cattle. And these are good actors, so the essential badness of Wade is now beyond dispute. But in the final fifteen minutes of the movie, Wade first of all helps Evans get him to the train, apparently because he feels sorry for him, and then guns down his entire gang in an apparent fit of pique when they shoot Evans at the last minute. At this point, Wade is pretty much the last man in Contention with a) a gun b) cojones and c) a pulse, so he's got any number of options, and he is, as we know, the baddest man alive. So he gets into the prison train and lets himself be taken off to get hanged. Because that way Evans' wife and kids will get paid and won't lose their farm.
Believe me, I've gone out of my way to explain this in a way that makes sense. The movie doesn't really bother so much with that. it doesn't even really establish the kind of connection between the actors which would let you buy the final scene as one of redemption. It's just plain mad. In the face of everything which has gone before, it's actually slightly more off the wall than the characters waking up and seeing that it was all a dream.
There is, however, one saving piece of realism during this shark-jumping travesty of a final act. The titular, eponymous, long-awaited 3:10 to Yuma is, wonderfully and appropriately, late.