Westerns are so rare these days that making one is like a declaration principle; a tacit guarantee of something more than a simple action thriller. That's certainly true of 3:10 to Yuma, a clever and thoroughly modern update of a minor classic from 1957.
The original sported the effective pairing of actors Glen Ford and Van Heflin, and likewise the remake rides high on the almost casual brilliance of its twin stars, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. These dueling powerhouses get to pour on the intensity, in a protracted showdown between virtue and corruption, with the clear winner being the audience that enjoys the conflict.
Based on an early Elmore Leonard story that's a marvel of tick-tock efficiency, building tension every step of the way on the road to a fateful climax, Yuma is stark and focused with only the mildest distractions spoiling its ride. Bale plays wounded Civil War vet turned rancher Dan Evans, struggling with drought and debt to keep his meager land and protect his family, when he stumbles into a violent robbery in progress. A stagecoach is being plundered by the sinister and seductive Ben Wade (Crowe), a mythic bad guy with a nagging streak of decency, who lets Evans and his sons go in exchange for their silence. That agreement lasts until Wade is captured in town and a railroad exec offers Evans $200 help escort the outlaw to Yuma on the train.
Hot on their heels is Wade's cutthroat gang, led by his vicious, crazy-eyed deputy Charlie, in a borderline campy, scene-stealing performance by Ben Foster. En route everyone either loathes or worships Wade, from Peter Fonda's righteous bounty hunter to Evans' own proper wife (Gretchen Mol), whose latent passion is barely contained beneath her drab prairie skirts. And Crowe is dynamite, relishing each moment of the role, crafting the most charming snake in recent memory, though it's hardly as much of a stretch for him as it was for Glen Ford, cast against his leading man type as a shifty devil.
Bale, who specializes in gaunt, haunted types, delivers his routine excellence a slow burn opposite Crowe's explosiveness. Director James Mangold lends the picture a sophisticated, brawny finish, even if his dusty vistas fall short of the visual poetry expected of the genre. Mangold's known for quality, handsome pictures (Walk the Line), if not for a lot of personal flair, but with material this sturdy he doesn't need it. If anything, there's perhaps too much grounded authenticity, which makes certain plot points, shoot-outs and personality switches seem a tad unbelievable. Still, it's fine popcorn entertainment, and mammon gets his due in blazing gunplay and bloody action. But at its core, ideas of right and wrong flirt with differing points of view and are there long after the gun barrels cool and the dust settles.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.