When the original 3:10 to Yuma was released in 1957, directed by Delmer Daves, reviewers were quick to liken it to High Noon. Both were claustrophobic pictures--the former confined to a town under impending siege, the latter set mostly in a Wild West hotel--and both worked toward a deadline: a showdown on Main Street in High Noon, a meeting with a prison train in 3:10 to Yuma. The tone was moral, the theme was communitarian and the good, true wife was always there to plead with her man.
The new 3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold, claims the same Elmore Leonard story as its source; but instead of inviting comparison to High Noon, it's closer in spirit to a different kind of Western from that period. Here most of the action happens on the trail, where men who have no reason to trust one another must nevertheless traverse dangerous territory together. Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome might be the best example of this starker, more brutal tale, in which community, at best, is a scattering of canvas lean-tos around a brothel, and morality matters very little compared with individual willpower.
The strongest will in Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma belongs to Russell Crowe--just the actor you'd want for a killer who's most dangerous when he's quiet, eyes lowered and big, round jaw working thoughtfully. With his thick slab of a torso and squared-off mug, Crowe long ago proved he had the gift of being brutal (witness Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential); but he could convey wit and intelligence as well, though usually in a tormented vein (witness L.A. Confidential again or The Insider or A Beautiful Mind). Now, starring in 3:10 to Yuma as the boss of a gang of stagecoach robbers, Crowe gets to be self-confidently intelligent in his brutality: both the smartest man in any situation and the most ruthless. "You're not all bad," a young man says to him at one point, half in admiration, half in hope that he won't be killed; to which Crowe replies, convincingly, "I am all bad. I'd have to be, to lead a gang of men like that."
His antagonist, whose will proves almost as strong, is Christian Bale--just the actor you'd want for a good, honest man who's wounded, half-starved, driven, obsessed and perpetually covered in dirt. You could have seen Bale play such a character in Batman Begins or (with equal conviction but to less effect) in this summer's Rescue Dawn. In 3:10 to Yuma, Bale gets to exercise his strange talent for power through self-abasement by playing an impoverished rancher who agrees to take Crowe to the prison train: a job that pays $200, as recompense for suicide.
If I were a director, I wouldn't want to cross either of these guys: the master of the glower and the prince of the sudden, insane grin. Mangold wisely stays out of their way, with the result that 3:10 to Yuma is the least posturing film he's made. The studiousness, or maybe affectation, that has informed Mangold's visual style has now been applied to the reproduction of classic Western moviemaking--the hat tipping up to reveal a man's eyes, the camera tracking bad guys on their quick route through town, the chiaroscuro of a campfire scene, the long, long vista marked by a line of approaching horsemen. Mangold is faithful to these images not just in form but in spirit, making 3:10 to Yuma one of the rare recent American films that deliver what you'd expect from a genre movie: something easy to watch.
The difficulty may be to understand the point of what you're watching. When the excitement is over, 3:10 to Yuma has proved something we all know to be true: The strong prevail. It has also suggested something that most of us hope: that those who don't prevail may still be respected for their own kind of strength. If this isn't exactly a cynical viewpoint, it's not very comforting, either. Which character would you rather be: the one who gains grandeur with his mounting ruthlessness or the one whose most responsible gesture is an act of surrender? I would prefer to imagine other choices, but there's just enough truth in the choice shown here to break your heart--a little.