If you plan on catching “The 3:10to Yuma,” be forewarned. It pulls out under a head of steam and picks up speed.
This locomotion is fueled by a struggle for manhood. Not that Rambo crap, running around the woods with a do-rag on your head. While the story is Wild West myth, the core is as real as it gets.
One doesn’t go looking for manhood. Its challenge finds you, like it found Dan Evans (Christian Bale), calling at its convenience—a curse and a blessing.
It comes a whisperin’ to the good, but god-forsaken rancher at his dry, drought-stricken ranch in Arizona Territory. Here, on the untamed frontier, the ex-Union soldier, short a leg after the war, has brought his pretty wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and two sons.
Evan’s struggle, a sort of late-in-life rite of passage, drives this remake of the 1957 John Ford western, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard tale. Directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line”), there’s a stingy economy in the storytelling, amplifying a sense of urgency that never lapses, even in intimate moments.
This air of anticipation begins in the implicit prayers for rain, an irony. It was for the arid climate, prescribed for the youngest boy, suffering from tuberculosis, that the family came here. The area has little else to recommend it.
Its proximity to Hell, evidenced by a heat that parches soil and soul, suggests itself further in the character of the local inhabitants. Foremost among these vultures are the men angling to drive Evans bankrupt and take possession of his land.
In a scene that speaks volumes, the rancher looks out the window to find his barn set on fire by his enemies. Extending great effort, he pitifully gimps out to his barn, being knocked to the ground on the way. His oldest son, 14-year-old Will (Logan Lerman) shoots past him, braving the fire to rescue the horses and saddles.
Will, weighing his father through the magnified heroics of dime novels, findshim lackluster in the defense of their home. His wife entertains similar doubts.
The whisper grows in volume: As a wounded animal in a predatory land his status as protector and provider lies in jeopardy.
Through the magic of simplicity, Director Mangold has set a stage with considerable depth.
Outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) on the other hand is one bad hombre. He and his well-disciplined band of thieves have designated the money of the Southern Pacific Railroad, as it travels west, as theirs. Claiming it means, on occasion, shooting a few guards.
Following a particularly healthy heist, Wade takes a break for some hard earned R and R. Entranced by the charm of a beautiful woman he drops both his pants and his guard.
The heart of the saga exposes itself when the handsome and cunning Wade, temporarily held hostage at the ranch, shares dinner with Dan’s family. Carefree and exuding confidence, he easily enraptures the wife and kids.
He’s everything the rancher isn’t and the family’s attraction is plain to all.
To bring Wade to justice, a group of men led by bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) must get him to town and headed to prison on the 3:10 to Yuma. It promises to be the most dangerous of journeys, with Wade’s very capable men guaranteed to attempt a rescue.
Dan is offered $200 to accompany the party, which he will receive if the makeshift posse succeeds. The money offers the opportunity to save the ranch, which is second to the opportunity of answering the whisper.
The beauty of “The 3:10 to Yuma” lies in how neither the action nor the profound and complex relationship developing between Evans and Wade get in the way of each other.
While faithful to the roots of its genre, “3:10” reminds us that in the face of very real savagery, the West was won with courage and compassion.
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by other Examiner critics.