Maybe it’s the recent success of “Brokeback Mountain” and the way that film made us reevaluate the gay subtext of many screen Westerns, but it’s hard to watch the otherwise-undaring remake of “3:10 to Yuma” without looking for same-sex signifiers.
For one thing, outlaw Russell Crowe’s top henchman, played by Ben Foster, ranks as one of the dandiest desperadoes since Marvel Comics’ recent controversial retooling of the Rawhide Kid as a crack-shot gunslinger who also happened to be absolutely fabulous. Foster sports a stunning white leather coat, lace-up chaps and guy-liner. He’s the kind of cowboy who shoots another man for calling him “Princess.” And he’s hopelessly devoted to Crowe.
And that’s a good thing for Crowe’s Ben Wade, a legendary train and stagecoach robber who’s finally been captured by the Pinkertons. A representative of the Union Pacific is willing to pay men to escort Wade to the town of Contention, where he will be loaded onto the titular train to prison. Struggling farmer Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a resolute pacifist since getting injured in the Civil War, reluctantly takes up the rifle and joins the posse to save his family from creditors.
The “Brokeback” subtext comes up again later, since the principal relationship in the film is between Ben and Dan, and the plot ultimately seems to hinge on whether or not Ben will ever respect Dan enough to allow himself to be captured and subdued by this soft-spoken family man whose war wound still makes him limp. Dan’s son Will (Logan Lerman) also has to be won over, since he respects Ben’s dime-novel derring-do over his father’s dry pragmatism.
“3:10 to Yuma” is perfectly fine for what it is, and director James Mangold throws in several exciting escape-and-pursuit sequences. Crowe and Bale bounce off each other well, and Alan Tudyk, as he does in “Death at a Funeral,” steals his scenes with an understated wit.
But if you’re looking for an “Unforgiven”-style reinvention of the Western, prepare for disappointment. With the exception of seeing a horse get blown up, there’s not a lot in the film that would seem out of place in Delmer Daves’ 1957 original, which starred Glenn Ford as Ben and Van Heflin as Dan. (If anything, this new version feels like a recasting with other stars of the era — Crowe does the charming-bastard sparkle of Burt Lancaster opposite Bale’s soft-spoken Gary Cooper.)
In the larger scheme of things, “3:10 to Yuma” makes for an entertaining night at the movies, but it’s really an amuse-bouche for the awards season to come. Bale is likely to get more attention for playing one of six Bob Dylan characters in Todd Haynes’ upcoming “I’m Not There,” while Crowe has bigger Oscar bait to fry in Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster.” The movie itself has “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” to contend with later this month. So if you’re a Western fan, enjoy “3:10 to Yuma” now, and if you’re a Queer Studies professor, bring a notepad.