As far as devilish incarnations go, The Usual Suspect's Keyser Soze figures to have a select seat at the table of onscreen villains. The old spook story told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) to Special Agent David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) about Soze returning home and finding his family in the clutches of his enemies goes to the heart of what defines the root of evil. Soze's will permits him to say goodbye to his wife and children, killing them in cold blood as a lesson to his enemies before dispatching them (all except for one who he sends off to spread the tale — because what good is committing atrocities if news of them doesn't get out).
3:10 to Yuma's Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) falls into the Soze mold, although he's got a bit of the romantic rogue and a somewhat healthy dose of Hannibal Lector mixed in as well (minus the cannibalism, which I suppose constitutes the relative healthiness of his particular brand of evil). Of course, he can afford to be quietly intense because he has a right-hand henchman named Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) to execute the stark-raving mad, cold-blooded fits for him. Prince has the dead eyes and quick, trigger-happy attitude one expects of black-hat, Old West caricatures.
It might very well come down to the two performances of Crowe and Foster to determine how this update of 3:10 To Yuma will be remembered, despite the fact that the film also features a strong turn from Christian Bale (when has he ever been less than reliable?). Coming off his physically stripped-down turn in Rescue Dawn, Bale is looking positively plush here. His world-worn farmer hits all the marks of a desperate and honorable man caught in a no-win situation, but this simply is not his story.
Yuma belongs to the black hats, and everyone — both the audience and the townspeople caught in the middle of this explosive battle — has little choice but to watch and await the outcome.
Crowe and Foster guarantee that there is quite a spectacle. Crowe, with his quiet intensity and rough charm, is offering his own play on villainy that recalls Denzel Washington's fiery, award-winning turn in Training Day, while Foster pulls the neater trick of playing against his type. Since bursting into our collective consciousness in Six Feet Under and offering a mutant repeat play as the soulful Warren Worthington (aka the Angel) in X3: The Last Stand, he has displayed the soft, sensitive soul, but here he favors a dynamic shift and explosive outpouring of heat that is pure performance. Every move he makes screams for attention, yet never does he threaten the balance of the movie. He is simply the yang to Crowe's yin and the two are quite a match.
There are lessons learned about honor and legends, but this western prides itself on its own less-than-mythic intentions. So often of late, Hollywood has attempted to recast the struggles and violence of the Old West into a new mold, pulling and stretching the genre out of shape. No longer simply lean and hungry, the western has to have meaning, its violent mean streets have to be tamed thematically to speak to our new sensibilities.
Walk the Line director James Mangold isn't aiming for a contemporary re-imagining of the classic conventions. He figures the western has survived Old Hollywood and maybe just needs to go back to being what it was in our earliest imaginings.
The West was a place full of interesting characters. And it was the confrontations between those characters that made the landscape the harsh reality that captured our attention. Those characters came alive in the hands of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. (A gritty supporting role for Peter Fonda in 3:10 to Yuma updates his father's glory days on the trail, particularly in Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West.) Why not find actors today who can inhabit these strong characters again? With Crowe, Bale and Foster, Mangold found the right combination. Grade: B+