How would I know? Well, despite what you know about my major fantasy-reading habit, you might not know that I also read a lot of westerns too. Ok, I used to read a lot of westerns. While I got out of that genre-habit a while ago, it does stick.
Westerns have a formula, a set of settings, a color combination... that are required to make the story "Western." Good westerns know how to take a simple story and add that mixture of swirling dust and dripping sweat and glistening snow on the mountains and snorting horses and cracking guns and stoic beautiful women and chiseled deep-eyed men... ahem. Anyway. So I know how the books are supposed to go, in order to get it right for me to enjoy them.
Movie westerns are harder to get right. They have to take into account the modern audience looking for explosions and gritty fights and blood running from between clutching fingers. (I bet Shane would look a lot different if it were filmed now!) In book westerns, the tunnel collapse would have been from a smash against a 4x4 support with a horse hoof or a rifle butt, or a wrapped rope dragging it away. That would have been the right touch for written fiction. In the movie, you can't stop for that kind of detail in a chase scene, and you need something for the advertising trailers, so the filmmakers went for the high-drama move of a pack of dynamite flung into midair and blown up by a shotgun fired over the shoulder of the fleeing riders. yippee.
The plot was not hard to follow, though if you don't know the formula you might miss the beginning of the lineup of character motivations. (Don't worry, they repeat themselves a few dozen times.) A little more explanation of who/what the Pinkertons were could have helped out the back story of a few exchanges, but it didn't end up mattering once everything came down to personal exchanges. I spent a little time dissecting who was going to die, when, and why. There were some characters who, in another genre, would have been wearing red shirts and walking forward to look when someone said "what's that?"
The cast of supporting characters was filled from the checklist, just as it was supposed to be. What I appreciated was the details of the presentation, the refinements of the characterizations, and the small twists away from the centerline on some of the stereotypes. Russell Crowe (playing outlaw Ben Wade) demonstrated unmistakably that he understood how to be a bad guy and also be a Western guy - complete with the crack about the jerk who took his horse. The second bad guy (Charlie Prince played by Ben Foster) was so painfully detailed, so well-in-character, that I was entirely satisfied with hating him and admiring the acting at the same moment. Foster also provided one of the funniest contextual lines in the movie, too, along with the most disturbing scene - burning a stagecoach with a man deliberately trapped inside. Kevin Durand ("Tucker") made sure that we knew that he was going to die first, and be happy when he did, regardless of the method and manner.
On the good-guy team, there weren't a lot of people onto which the story could hang. One bright part was provided by Alan Tudyk. He was a long way from Serenity with this halftime good guy side kick act as Doc Potter. And while it was obvious he was far too shiny to go very far along through the movie, his bit with the shovel was just right.
So how about the hero, Dan Evans, Arizona cattle rancher and former sharpshooter for the Massachusetts Volunteers? I have to start by saying that I'm not a Christian Bale fan (actually, I couldn't pull him out of a lineup) so I can't comment on this as compared to any of his other performances (though I did enjoy Batman Begins). That said, I think that he was a good choice for the cast and setting for this movie. His character/acting grew on me as the movie went along. I wasn't terribly sympathetic to Evans/Bale at the beginning of the movie - as the formula set us up not to be - and was rooting for the rancher's son's more in-their-eye approach. But that's one of the beauties of the Western formula. The story pulled me along to see the strengths and solid core of character of the small-time rancher that Bale was portraying, so when the confessional commentary started falling out during the Final! Big! Battle!, the characters played by Crowe and Bale actually were funny under stress, as they were meant to be.
There was a "now you're a man, son" moment before the big battle that would have made a perfect Max Brand ending - nothing resolved, and you only get to guess who and how people are going to die. But of course not. This was a formula Western on the big screen for a blood-and-guts modern audience. So we had to see everything from the running gunfight (tension! shootouts! more tension!), to the late-arriving son (I told you to go home!), to the deliberate stampede (wait, again?), to the train smoke swirling everywhere as it slowly pulled into the station... The wrap-up and ending were exactly what I expected. Everyone played his role correctly to the bitter end, and we know where the story will go from here. The end.
Ok, I admit it: I didn't expect the very end to have the hokey bit with the horse, and I would have been WAY HAPPIER if they had left that part out. Yes, it's a pretty horse and a cute move, but that little stunt pushed my suspension of disbelief into collapse.