The western may be an endangered cinematic species nowadays, but every once in a while one still comes along good enough to make you nostalgic for the days when they were churned out in droves. That’s the case with James Mangold’s elegant, exciting remake of Delmar Daves’ 1957 “thinking man’s” oater, which starred Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in a taut adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story about a desperate farmer who took the dangerous job of transporting a murderous bandit to a railway line for transport to prison. The earlier “3:10 to Yuma” didn’t match the success of its obvious inspiration, “High Noon,” but it was a strong, vigorous entry even in the days of great westerns. And Mangold has managed to preserve its strengths while expanding the original with new characters and adding a unifying father-and-son subplot.
He’s fortunate in having assembled a cast that has hardly a weak link and almost makes one not regret the absence of old stalwarts like Ward Bond, Strother Martin, Jack Elam and Dan Duryea. Dominating the screen is Russell Crowe, who effortlessly captures all the malevolent charisma of Ben Wade, the outlaw leader whose gang, in a spectacularly-staged opening sequence, attacks a stagecoach defended by Pinkerton agents with a Gatling gun as well as crusty bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), an old rival whom he lets live despite the bloodlust of his right-hand man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). Observing the attack is financially strapped rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), crippled in the war, and his sons, rebellious teen Will (Logan Lerman) and sickly Mark (Benjamin Petry). They rescue McElroy and take him back to town, where Pinketon man Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) and Marshal Weathers (Luce Rains) manage to capture Wade, who’s tarried too long with barmaid Emmy Roberts (Vinessa Shaw) while his gang has scattered to safety.
A decision’s made to take Wade to a town appropriately called Contention, some three days’ ride, to board the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, and Evans, who’s about to lose the ranch to one of those eternally grasping local tyrants, agrees to be part of the posse in charge of getting him there for a land-saving paycheck. Accompanying him will be Butterfield, McElroy, Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), who must care for McElroy’s wounds, and Tucker (Kevin Durand), henchman to the town despot who’s dispossessing Dan. But Will, who’s been left behind, shows up just in time to keep Wade from escaping in the first of several instances in which he outwits his captors. And hovering over the entire journey is the knowledge that Prince and his comrades may be right behind them, coming to liberate Ben.
Scripters Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas have done an excellent job of keeping the duel-like nature of the piece sharp while adding further layers to the central story. The original was basically a two-hander between Heflin, as the straight-arrow rancher, and Ford, cast against type as the courtly but sinister killer. This new version keeps the focus on the two men, with Crowe mesmerizing as the smiling, soft-spoken outlaw who can turn on a dime into the amoral brute and Bale offering another of his impressive chameleon turns as the regular guy forced into an unfamiliar role to save his family; their scenes together are like acting master classes. Crowe once again fits into a period piece with remarkable ease, proving as much at home in the nineteenth-century west as he was in “Gladiator’s” Roman Empire and “Master and Commander’s” Napoleonic era, and Bale matches him point for point.
But this version amplifies things with supporting roles that not only take the narrative to a full two hours (as opposed to Daves’ 92 minutes), but play with the cliches of the genre. So we get Foster’s compelling turn as a beady-eyed gunslinger who’s sort of like Jack Palance’s “Shane” villain re-imagined through the prism of one of the young Richard Widmark’s trench-coated modern crazies, and Fonda’s lanky, laconic bounty hunter, Tudyk’s soft but nervously heroic vet-turned-doctor, Roberts’ haughty eastern detective, Rains’ leathery lawman and Tucker’s thuggish deputy. Most important, though, is the expansion of the role of Will Evans, little more than a cameo in the original, who here becomes an important figure as the boy at war with himself—disappointed in his father, whom he sees as weak, and seduced by Wade’s easy charm. His presence deepens the conflict at the center of the story by making the young man’s soul, after a fashion, the prize that Wade and Evans are fighting for.
Throughout Mangold works with finesse, paying homage to the old conventions without allowing them to seem stale and securing strong performances down the line. (The only exceptions are the women. Gretchen Mol barely registers as Dan’s wife, nor does Shaw make much of an impression, except on the eye. This is a virile manly tale.) Technical contributions are top-notch, from Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography and Michael McCusker’s editing, which together mix energy and control, to Marco Beltrami’s score, supportive in both the action scenes and the quieter moments.
“3:10 to Yuma” hits a rough patch in the last reel, when the shift in Wade’s motivations remain as opaque as it was the first time around, and the decision to go for a denouement that’s simultaneously downbeat and uplifting doesn’t quite come off. But those problems aren’t enough to take the movie off the rails. This is a wonderfully old-fashioned western that works in contemporary terms, too—a rousing demonstration that some people can make the kinds of pictures they supposedly don’t make anymore, and do it just fine.