Dismissed by some as a derivative rehash of “High Noon,” the original “3:10 to Yuma” — a tense 1957 thriller about an amateur lawman recruited to take a killer to prison — was a workmanlike effort, effective enough as a familiar slice of Western mythology. The remake takes that modest premise, inspired by an Elmore Leonard story, and recharges it with moments of explosive violence and the engaging personalities of Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
As Dan Evans, a Civil War veteran hampered by an amputated foot and an unwavering conscience, Bale is dutifully solemn, his thin, wind-chapped face often set in a grim, pensive stare. He is driven by the need to impose some semblance of order on a land being casually plundered by roving gangs of thieves and sheriffs who would rather fill their pockets than uphold the law. Nihilism reigns, and with it chaos and depravity.
If that makes “3:10 to Yuma” sound like a standard iconic tale of good versus evil, think again. While Evans remains intensely high-minded without ever seeming one-dimensional, the man in the black hat, outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe), is the mystery at the heart of the movie.
At first glance, he is a heartless rogue, ready to gun down anyone who stands between him and the things he treasures most — whiskey, money and women, in no particular order. But once Wade begins talking to the man who holds him prisoner, he reveals himself as clever, well versed in biblical lore, even charming. As disquieting as his bursts of violence may be, it is startling to realize that Wade just might be thesanest man in his tiny corner of an impressively vast Western wasteland.
Director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) does his best to capture the desolate beauty of the New Mexico badlands, but it is Crowe who elevates this material into something more than a capable remake of a sturdy but unexceptional Western. As Wade, he is brilliant, a mix of playful charisma and prideful rage. Coldly unsentimental though he can be, there is an unmistakable bond that gradually forms between the killer and his captor, even if neither would care to admit it.
It’s easy to understand why. Evans lives by a rigid code that prevents him from acknowledging his fondness for a prisoner with so much blood on his hands; Wade, meanwhile, has a ruthless reputation to uphold. By the time his gang — led by the wild-eyed Ben Foster, who perfectly channels the sadistic glee of Donald Pleasance in “Will Penny” — arrives to free him, it is no longer a question of whether Wade will save his unlikely friend, just how.
Crowe pulls off the transition from monster to anti-hero seamlessly. He is quick-witted and ingratiating without ever losing his dangerous edge. If this is not his finest performance, it may be the most fun to watch. This “3:10” arrives on time, and is one of the year’s most enjoyable films.
3:10 to Yuma ****
Starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda
Written by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas
Directed by James Mangold
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes