If "3:10 to Yuma" feels familiar, and it does, it's not just because it's a remake of the classic 1957 western. Almost every plot point -- psycho gunslingers, savage Apaches, even doctors who say "that bullet has to come out" -- is a trope that has been a genre standard for decades.
But what's most impressive about this new version, starring Russell Crowe as a charismatic outlaw and Christian Bale as the downtrodden rancher who crosses his path, is that James Mangold directs it with such energy and passion that it's as if he didn't know it's all been done before.
Approaching this material with the enthusiasm of a famished man confronting his first square meal in days, Mangold has brought welcome intensity to the project, giving "3:10 to Yuma" a visceral, immediate quality that makes it realistic and mythic all at the same time.
The director, best known for the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line," has been a fan of the Delmer Daves-directed original -- which began life as an Elmore Leonard short story and starred Glenn Ford as the outlaw and Van Heflin as the rancher -- for more than 20 years.
But that hasn't stopped Mangold (whose forte is modernizing traditional material) and screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas from reusing and crediting some of the dialogue from Halsted Welles' original script while simultaneously upping the ante in all areas.
So "3:10 to Yuma's" psychos are numerous and deeply psychotic, the action is kinetic, the conflicts and pressures on rancher Dan Evans are palpable. Though the original was considered a modern "adult" western half a century ago, its heart now beats a whole lot faster, and so does ours.
While that original was ballyhooed as "in the tradition of the screen's biggest outdoor dramas," a lot of it focused on the psychology of men waiting in the tiny town of Contention, wondering if the train to Yuma was going to be on time and what would happen when it got there. Mangold has chosen to open up the story and give himself the opportunity to shoot in the wide open spaces of New Mexico by adding, among other elements, those fierce Apaches and a sequence involving Chinese workers laying transcontinental railroad track.
Given that the director works especially well with actors -- both Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted" and Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" won Oscars -- it's to be expected that Mangold gets strong performances from both his stars as well as his supporting cast.
It's Bale as rancher Evans we encounter first, coping with the woes of Job. In addition to being hobbled by a Civil War injury, Evans gets no respect from anyone in his life. His cattle are dying because of drought, his mortgage holder is trying to force him off the land, his wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol), is regretful, and Will, his surly 14-year-old son (Logan Lerman in a role considerably beefed up from the original), considers him as weak as green tea. When Alice says to him, "No one will think less of you," Evans snaps back, "No one can think less of me." Ouch.
Outlaw legend Ben Wade (Crowe), a man who would as soon kill you as look at you, is, by contrast, at the top of his game. He robs stagecoaches at will (21 at last count), his word is law as far as his vicious gang of miscreants is concerned and he is much comforted by the biblical verse he is fond of quoting: "Every wicked man is right in his own heart."
Only the long arm of coincidence has the strength to connect these two men, but connect they do, and Evans' desperate need for money puts him on a posse of men, headed by gruff Pinkerton agent Byron McElroy (an expert, almost unrecognizable Peter Fonda), who are determined to get Wade to the town of Contention and on that aforementioned train to the federal penitentary in Yuma.
It's no stretch to see Crowe embracing the role of a cocky, seductive outlaw, the unlikely sophisticate who enjoys playing manipulative mind games with everyone in sight, but he does so with so much brio that his performance shines. The actor himself apparently feels the same way: In the film's closing credits, the name "Ben Wade" frequently appears where Crowe's would ordinarily be.
If Crowe is a treat all the way through, Bale's performance improves as the film progresses and his character toughens under pressure. A master of grim, humorless determination, Bale is one of the few actors equally believable as weak and downtrodden and heroic. Though the film's finale feels a trifle too worked over, its chase elements pump enough adrenaline to make up for it.
Finally, a word must be said about Ben Foster, whose portrait of psycho in chief Charlie Prince, resplendent in double-breasted leather jacket with brass buttons as Wade's No. 2, is one of "3:10 to Yuma's" signature elements. Foster's gleeful villainy owes more than a little to Lee Marvin in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," but everything about this energetic film owes something to somebody, and that turns out to be not a bad thing at all.
"3:10 to Yuma." MPAA rating: R for violence and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In general release.