By Christy Lemire
You hear that a movie like “3:10 to Yuma” is being remade and the immediate reaction is, “Why?”
The 1957 Western, about an intellectual outlaw and the indebted rancher who’s volunteered to help deliver him to prison, was solid and still holds up well today.
So it’s a wonderful surprise to discover that this new version, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and directed by James Mangold, not only remains true to its roots but expands on them in ways that are thrilling and thoroughly entertaining. Moviegoers aren’t exactly clamoring for a Western these days, and a master work of the genre hasn’t come along since “Unforgiven” in 1992. But the acting is so powerful here and the craftsmanship is so superb, it’s bound to draw fans both old and new, and deservedly so.
Based on the short story by Elmore Leonard and maintaining his flair for compelling, complicated bad guys, the film follows the unlikely alliance that forms between the dangerous Ben Wade (Crowe) and the damaged Dan Evans (Bale) over the course of a couple of days in the craggy Arizona desert.
The original, directed by Delmer Daves from a script by Halsted Welles, starred Glenn Ford as Wade and Van Heflin as Evans. Mangold (“Walk the Line”), working from a script by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, gives us a deeper understanding of these key players and broadens the roles of several peripheral figures.
Peter Fonda leads the strong supporting cast as an explosive bounty hunter who’s not to be underestimated, despite his advancing age, but the wiry Ben Foster nearly upstages his more famous co-stars as Wade’s loyal but volatile right-hand man. (Even though it’s barely September, it’s never too early for Oscar talk, as we know, with Crowe and Bale understandably earning the majority of the buzz. But don’t forget about Foster — he’s so intense and unpredictable, you can’t take your eyes off him.)
The relationship that develops between Wade and Evans is, of course, the crux of the film. They are inherently different and their goals are at odds with each other, yet they can’t help finding themselves fascinated by one another. Each man seems to hold a mystique in the projection of who he is — or, at least, who he thinks he is. One of the strongest elements of “3:10 to Yuma” and other Westerns of its ilk is its exploration of the ambiguity of man, and how dire circumstances can bring out unexplored facets of a person’s personality.
Dan Evans has been in serious financial straits for a while, trying to keep his ranch running during a drought in the late 1800s. He could just give up and sell his land to the Southern Pacific railroad, which is in the midst of stretching out to the coast. Or he could fight back and try to maintain his dignity — and restore the faith his wife (Gretchen Mol) and 14-year-old son (Logan Lerman) so clearly have lost in him.
Into this turmoil, and into town, ride Ben Wade and his gang, fresh off a bank stagecoach heist. (Mangold isn’t known as an action director, but he thrusts us into the rush of this caper with jumpy, intimate camerawork. He will settle down, however, and allow the tale’s innate suspense to build up and play out.)