It was considerably better than "not all that bad." I liked it a lot. I liked it better than Eastern Promises, which came with much more critical hoopla surrounding it. And the more I think about it, afterwards, the more I like it in retrospect.
I think I like Westerns for the same reason that I like the best science fiction or fantasy, or Buffy. So often they are not just about the cattle drive/quest or catching the bad guy/destroying the dark lord or ridding the town of the nasties/destroying the aliens as they are about questions of humanity. The choices we make. What makes a person good or bad. What it means to do the right thing in the face of appalling odds. How, sometimes, it's even possible to respect your enemy if you are both operating under a standard of behavior or code that you can recognize and understand. This movie is loaded with all those questions. It's about heroism and hero worship and living up to expectations - not only those of other people but your own. It's about being disappointed with the way life turns out, and it's about redemption.
All of this would have been far less effective, and might have been hogwash, without a cast of superb actors. There is a collection of worthy character actors in support of two equally intense and charismatic stars. Peter Fonda plays a Pinkerton agent who has been everywhere, seen everything and is too cynical to be surprised by much. Alan Tudyk (whom Firefly fans will recognize) nicely portrays a basically decent guy who gets caught up in someone else's story. Ben Foster is rivetting as Charlie, Russell Crowe's sidekick, who is, as Roger Ebert puts it, at least half in love with the Russell Crowe character. It seems, as the movie plays out, that each of the characters falls at least half in love with another or others, but it's not about male bonding or clumsy homoeroticism. It's about recognizing and responding to what is admirable in another human being, despite your preconceptions.
And then there are Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. I have never seen either of these men give an unsubtle or un-nuanced performance. There is so much going on behind their eyes. Russell Crowe has the charisma to make you understand why men like Charlie would be half in love with him, or why men like Dan Evans (Christian Bale) could grow to respect him. And he has the subtlety to show not just that he's capable of being a cold-blooded killer but that he could grow to respect Dan Evans, too. Christian Bale is the man disappointed with life, trying to live up to the expectations of his wife, his son, and above all of himself. He's trying to be a hero in a world that makes it impossible. Everyone around him thinks that he's a loser. He thinks that he's a loser, but knows deep down that he's capable of more. And Bale has the intensity and depth as an actor to be able to convey all that. There are a couple of moments where these two men just grin at one another and you like them both so much and care desperately about what happens to both of them.
Had the cinematography been equal to the power of the performances, this would have been one of those all-time classic, mythical Westerns. The plot is simple but suspenseful. You can forgive a few lapses in credibility towards the end, because you want things to happen the way they do. And the ending is powerful and moving and satisfying without being predictable or sentimental.
Definitely worth your time and the price of a video rental!