Delmer Daves’ original 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is the kind of neglected gem film buffs love recommending to friends. Here, two of Hollywood’s broodiest leading men unite for James Mangold’s rip-roaring remake. Struggling to support his family, downtrodden rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) agrees to deliver notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) onto the 3:10 to Yuma, the train that will take him to prison. Along the precarious journey, Wade and Evans earn each other’s grudging respect, but Wade’s gang are trailing them every step of the way, leading both men towards a blazing, bullet-strewn destiny.
Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma, like many westerns, offers a study of conflicting masculinity. Like the Duke said: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” There is surprising mileage in that theme, which the original explores exceptionally well. Who has the greater integrity: the hard-working family man? Or the wily outlaw, equally conflicted in his way? Ben Wade isn’t the devil incarnate, but a complex, conflicted soul, capable of compassion. Here, the decision to make Wade a bloodthirsty killer severely undercuts our empathy. Mangold and screenwriters Hallsted Welles and Michael Brandt try to have it both ways by ensuring Wade kills only those people who annoy or insult him. Oh, so that’s alright then…
Russell Crowe is a solid actor. He plays what he’s given to the hilt, but the screenplay has rendered a subtly shaded, ambiguous anti-hero frustratingly inconsistent. Similarly, the script doesn’t do Dan Evans justice, providing him scant opportunities to demonstrate heroism - save for his climactic stand - and suggesting he’s only doing it to prove himself to his disenchanted son. It is somewhat indicative of our times that qualities considered admirable in the 1950s are unmasked as weak and fraudulent, while the psychotic outlaw is sexy and cool. However, Christian Bale delivers the standout performance, ennobling a broken man with pathos and admirable tenacity.
Mangold tends to squander promising ideas (Kate & Leopold (2001), Identity (2003)), but does fine work here, updating the western for a contemporary audience. His aggressive sound mix has ear-splitting gunshots ringing in your skull, but he draws memorable character turns from Gretchen Mol as Evans’ wife, Alan Tudyk as a heroic veterinarian-turned-doctor, and as an ice-cold gunman, Ben Foster, unrecognisable from his days as the teen star of Get Over It (2001). Peter Fonda’s grizzled lawman is another victim of the screenplay’s inconsistent characterization and there is a surprising, “what’s he doing here?” cameo from Luke Wilson.
Mangold delivers a pulse-pounding finish with Evans and Wade dodging bullets in a mad dash for the 3:10 train, expertly choreographed and edited. However, the revised ending is a major point of contention. The whole point is for Evans and Wade to part as equals, that we find respect for both their values. Instead of the life-affirming humanism of the original, Mangold opts for Sam Peckinpah-style, poetic tragedy, although a closing shot renders Wade’s supposedly noble gesture rather hollow. Having said that, upon leaving the cinema this writer overheard one female critic remark she couldn’t understand why Wade would stick up for a wimp like Evans in the first place. So this is a new 3:10 to Yuma for a new generation who might find the original too sentimental. Maybe, but for the story to really deliver, bleaker ain’t necessarily better.