It may be dressed like a western and take place on horses through mountain passes and unfinished railroads, but 3:10 to Yuma is about buddies on a road trip. I mean this in the absolute best sense of the word. Too few action movies are this good.
The movieâ€™s first act introduces us to Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down on his luck Civil War veteran trying to keep his ranch from a landowner who wants to sell to the railroad company. He is the consummate sad sack; he lost his foot in the civil war, he owes too much money, and his barn is burned down. His older son, William (Logan Lerman), is ashamed of his father, spitting â€œIâ€™ll never walk in your shoesâ€ between clenched teeth when the old man tries to explain.
While out tending to the heard, the Evans boys come across a stagecoach robbery in progress, and escort an injured man into Bisby. While in town, a chance meeting and some quick thinking on Danâ€™s part help the local constabulary nab Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a notorious murderer guild of at least twenty two stagecoach robberies. Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) a representative of the train company (complete with handlebar mustache suitable for the occasional twirl) informs Wade that he will be will be on his way to Contention, Arizona where he will board the 3:10 prison train to Yuma for conviction and execution.
A small escort posse is formed on the spot, and Evans gets on because he â€œwas the best shot in the regiment.â€ Happy that Dan fought for the North, Butterfield hires him on for two hundred dollars, mucho dinero for a man used to two dollars a day.
Itâ€™s the perfect cliche posse, consisting of our protagonist and antagonist rounded out by a disposable menagerie of colorful characters. There is Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), the well intentioned veterinarian who will learn he has the heart of lion before itâ€™s too late, if only just. There is Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), the grizzled bounty hunter who will push a few too many buttons for his own good. Tucker is the clown who is so abrasive weâ€™re ready for him to go a good ten minutes before he is. They are joined in the nick of time by William, who idolizes Wade but will find out just what bad means.
The bulk of the movie describes the trip from Bisby to Contention, with Wadeâ€™s gang of bloodthirsty murderers in hot pursuit. It is the Odyssey on speed, as the motley crew makes its way through various adventures: a decoy stagecoach, a trip through Apache territory, and a run-in with another posse looking to torture and kill Wade. All told in a pulse-pounding sprint, the action interspersed with quiet scenes where Wade pulls Lecter-esque mind games with his fellow riders while revealing that while he may be bad to the bone, heâ€™s got his own notions of honor.
Once the film makes it to Contention, the brakes are off for the race to the finish line, culminating in the bravura ending, where the clock strikes three and the last twelve minutes take place in real time. Itâ€™s the obvious way to end a movie like this, but the execution is flawless, and couldnâ€™t end any other way.
The train to Yuma is little more than a McGuffin, giving no impetus to the story other than giving a destination. This is a road movie where two men form, if not a friendship, a bond. There is a moment in Yuma when that relationship turns, and while there may be some incredulity mixed with our suspension of disbelief, there is satisfaction to be had in the way Dan is able to redeem himself in the eyes of his son.
The Internet Movie Database tells me that Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were originally meant to play Wade and Evans, respectively. With due respect to both actors, it would not work. This movie lives or dies on the bonding between the rancher and the outlaw, which is due to the actors speaking the lines as much as the lines themselves.