“3:10 to Yuma” is a tense, rugged redo of a film that was pretty good the first time around. Reinforced by a strong central premise, alert performances, a realistic view of the developing Old West and a satisfying dimensionality in its shadings of good and evil, James Mangold’s remake walks a fine line in retaining many of the original’s qualities while smartly shaking things up a bit. A Western these days needs to be more than a solid, unfussy programmer to break out of the pack commercially, but this Lionsgate release should be able to generate moderately good theatrical returns prior to a solid home entertainment life, where casual viewer curiosity will be well rewarded.
Russell Crowe may be the biggest name in the cast, but one curious sidelight of the project is that the author of the 1953 short story on which the original 1957 film is based, Elmore Leonard, reps far more of a draw now than he did half a century ago. Tightly focused yarn was at the time viewed as firmly in the Western-with-a-conscience camp of “High Noon,” in which lawmen and ordinary citizens alike were tested by their willingness to confront the evil in their midst.
Unlike in “High Noon,” however, the man putting himself on the line here is not a sheriff or marshal, but a lame rancher whose life and family are just one bad season from coming apart at the seams. In the first of many tight, anxious scenes fraught with violence or the threat of it, the barn of Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is set afire. But Dan’s vow of vengeance falls on deaf ears; so seemingly ineffectual has he become that his wife (Gretchen Mol) and older son Will (Logan Lerman) differ only in the degrees of their loss of faith in him.
In a subsequent bracing scene, a wild bunch led by the dapper Ben Wade (Crowe) attacks a payroll coach with a Gatling gun. Numerous bloody deaths ensue, but so does a big payoff for Ben, who, after his men take off, tarries too long with a luscious barmaid (Vinessa Shaw) in a nearby town and is arrested with Dan’s help.
Although tempted to kill the notorious outlaw on the spot, local authorities prudently decide to turn him over the feds for official hanging. This, however, will involve transporting him to the railway town of Contention, where in two days’ time, Ben can be put on the train to Yuma. To pay off his debt, Dan volunteers to help escort Ben to his destination.
Thus begins a war of nerves that plays out in tasty ways across a vivid landscape. Although handcuffed and surrounded by several armed men, it’s Ben who sets the tone and exerts the power. Quoting Scripture when it suits the occasion, he elicits information with seemingly innocuous questions, taunts his guards, and baits Dan about his missing leg and inability to support his family or please his beautiful wife. An excellent judge of character and master manipulator, he manages to kill one, then another of his guards, and is on the verge of getting away when who should turn up in a pinch but young Will, who wants to help his dad but harbors an ill-concealed admiration for the charismatic bandit.
As the diminishing group proceeds through renegade Apache territory and into a mountainous railway construction site, they are shadowed by Ben’s remaining gang, headed in his absence by his No. 2, the psychopathic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). If anyone’s going to gain the most, career-wise, from “3:10 to Yuma,” it will definitely be Foster, who puts the kind of indelible imprint on this juicy role that, in earlier eras, allowed such thesps as Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Dan Duryea, James Coburn, Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin and others to immortalize themselves in the annals of Western villainy.
With his albino coloring, pinched mouth, reedy voice and remorseless wall-eyes, Foster’s lightning-draw killer brandishes a dementia amplified by an intense loyalty to Ben that gently borders on homoeroticism; he’ll do anything for his boss, for some reasons that are clear and for some that must be intuited. Foster is a mad delight to watch, and a reminder that the relative scarcity of Westerns deprives a generation of character actors of opportunities to shine.
Eventually, the few surviving wayfarers wind up in Contention to await the train. The least satisfying aspect of the original film — which was confidently directed by Delmer Daves and written by Halsted Welles, who receives shared script credit here with Michael Brandt and Derek Haas — was the ending, which wrapped things up too thoroughly. Conclusion has been significantly altered here, with an eye toward more complex layering of emotion and meaning. But qualms persist, as aspects of the physical action and psychological motivation remain murky and forced.
All the same, “Yuma” provides an absorbing ride, with helpful contributions from all hands. Honoring tradition in the storytelling but pushing for a heightened visual realism, Mangold has lenser Phedon Papamichael thrust the camera right into the action with a lot of handheld and perspective shots that must keep pace with constantly mobile characters, horses and coaches. Michael McCusker’s cutting and the clangy, propulsive score by Marco Beltrami keep a cattle prod on the proceedings.
Crowe is completely in his element here as, in the best tradition of great stars, he betrays no effort in conveying the masculine confidence, psychological acuity and manipulative power of his alluring bad guy; his Ben is one slick customer and more. Bale, whom one can imagine being effective in his own way as the villain, well embodies the strengths and frailties of the Eastern-bred rancher without sentimentality, and Lerman earns notice as a kid ready to skip adolescence and burst into full-blown manhood. Supporting turns are vivid, including a wonderfully leathery characterization by Peter Fonda as a supremely tough old bounty hunter.