Even though the Western genre has lost favor with the moviegoing public in recent decades, it's easy to see why filmmakers continue to find it fertile ground for drama. Its grand, mythic themes appeal to a fundamental storytelling instinct, and there are so many to work with: good vs. evil, order vs. anarchy, nature vs. civilization, man vs. his own basest instincts, and the very birth of the American society as we know it. All these and more can be wrapped up in easily digestible morality tales set against vast expanses of beautiful scenery and filled with rip-roaring shoot-'em-up action. Rugged cowboys face off against charming outlaws, blazing a path through the wild untamed frontier with six-shooters, rifles, and dynamite. What's not to love? And yet, by and large, modern audiences remain apathetic to the whole thing, convinced that Westerns were their granddaddy's genre and offer little of interest for them. Most of the same themes have since been transplanted to the science fiction realm to bigger box office results. But the filmmakers keep trying, and every few years a notable director will mount a revival of the format. The most successful, like Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' or the HBO series 'Deadwood', are typically of the revisionist form, deconstructing the mythic archetypes and iconography of the Old West that had been burned into the collective cinematic consciousness for more than a century now.
The latest attempt to bring back the Western comes from director James Mangold ('Cop Land', 'Walk the Line'), and has few such pretensions. His remake of '3:10 to Yuma' (based on an Elmore Leonard short story last adapted to screen in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Val Heflin in the leads) is an old fashioned two-fister, pitting an honest do-gooder against a dangerous outlaw in a battle of wills. In this go-round, Christian Bale is the struggling rancher Dan Evans, a simple man up to his eyes in debt and desperate to hold his family together. When the notorious train robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, oozing charisma) is finally captured, Dan volunteers to be part of the posse escorting him to the town of Contention, where the 3:10 train will cart him off to prison in Yuma for trial and hanging. For this, Dan will be paid the sum of $200 by the railroad company, a small fortune that should get him through another season of drought. The problem he faces is that Ben's gang, headed by trusted lieutenant Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), wants their leader back, and are ready to gun down anyone who gets in their way.
Bale and Crowe deliver terrific performances, each man fully inhabiting their three-dimensional characters with complex moral values and complicated emotional lives. Joining them are Peter Fonda, unabashedly channeling John Wayne as a grizzled Pinkerton agent with a grudge against Wade, and Alan Tudyk ('Serenity', 'Dodgeball') as a small town doctor hopelessly out of his depth in this posse of rugged fighters. Tudyk has few lines but steals many scenes with his attempts to hide a wide-eyed innocence behind a façade of gruff bravado. Truly standing out even from this cast, however, is Ben Foster as Wade's flashy, amoral second-in-command, strutting through the picture with a cocky self-assurance and an air of invincibility. It's a flamboyant performance that could have gone over the top, but is dialed back just enough to remain well modulated among the rest of the main players.
The movie has a fairly simple and straightforward story, charged by the cracking performances and peppered with exciting shootouts. It's an entertaining ride, held back from greatness by a few significant flaws. The first is that Wade's personality and behavior are inconsistent; he's meant to be a sensitive soul as well as seductively evil, but the script has him veering too radically between the extremes, with the motivation for some of his actions at the end unconvincing. The big climax also veers into silly action movie territory, with thousands of bullets fired in a confined space while the heroes duck and dodge and rarely does anyone get hit. But beyond all that is one simple question that unravels the entire plot: Why don't they just shoot him and be done with it? Undoubtedly the filmmakers have all sorts of elaborate justifications for why the characters want to keep Wade alive (Evans is too morally righteous to kill a man in cold blood, for example), but realistically they don't hold up to scrutiny in such an environment, and one bullet could have spared everyone a lot of trouble.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'3:10 to Yuma' comes to Blu-ray from Lionsgate Entertainment, who have made the infuriating decision to program no fewer than seven forced trailers (totaling 14 minutes in length) before the main menu, none which can be bypassed with the MENU key. They must be skipped individually every time the disc is loaded. Advertised in these trailers are not just new or upcoming releases, but also movies that have been available on Blu-ray for ages such as 'The Punisher' and 'Lord of War'.
Once you finally get to them, the disc's menus are nice to look at but confusingly structured and organized. It's difficult to tell how exactly to choose a desired option, and features such as the audio commentary and "Inside Yuma" function have on/off commands that, when selected, are not clear whether you've actually turned them on or turned them off (in fact, the main menu and the Inside Yuma control menu work exactly the opposite of one another).
Having made it through the disc's awkward navigation design, I was pleased to find that the movie looks damn good. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer, presented in the film's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, is very sharp and detailed, with a rich palette of vivid and nicely saturated colors. The contrast range from the deep of night to the bright hot desert sun is expertly captured, lending the image a satisfying sense of depth. Shadow detail in the darkest scenes is also easily discernable.
On the downside, the picture has some edge enhancement processing that causes distracting haloing at times. The movie's photography is moderately grainy in some scenes, which wouldn't be a problem in itself except that the edge enhancement sometimes makes the grain look quite noisy. Yet at other points it looks like Noise Reduction has been applied. I also noticed strange aliasing artifacts at the bottom of the screen around the 24-minute mark, and the end credits text exhibits jaggies; both issues I assume are errors in the digital compression. The disc looks great overall, but problems like these could have been avoided with more careful attention.
The uncompressed PCM 7.1 soundtrack is a flat-out stunner. The mix is extremely enveloping in the surround channels, filling the soundstage with numerous subtle ambient cues and music. When the action builds up, the cracking gunshots rip through the air around you, bullets whizzing through every channel. Dialogue clarity is perfect, and overall fidelity is excellent. There's also plenty of low-end activity, from the roar of galloping horses and the chugging of the steam locomotive, to the drumming musical score. The bass itself doesn't often hit the lowest registers, however, and sounds a little too boomy at times, but that's a mild complaint at most. This is a very fun, engaging audio track.
The disc also has a standard Dolby Digital-EX 5.1 option, which is very nice in itself, but the PCM track takes the audio experience to another level entirely.
All of the bonus features from the DVD have been replicated on the Blu-ray, presented entirely in High Definition video here.
If you really wanted to watch them again, the same trailers forced at the beginning of the disc can be selected from the bonus features menu.
'3:10 to Yuma' didn't quite revitalize the Western genre as its makers may have hoped, but it's an entertaining (if flawed) movie. The Blu-ray has excellent picture and sound, plus some worthwhile supplements, especially the ones that provide historical context. Recommended for sure.