The western, whose death has been announced so many times over the past few decades, rides again in James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The black and white 1957 original was leaner and more claustrophobic than this expansive star vehicle for Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
Still, writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas have managed to retain the spirit of the source material, a short story by Elmore Leonard, while adding greater he-man heft and boisterous chase sequences to make it attractive to those audiences weaned on Speed rather than High Noon.
Bale plays Dan Evans, an impoverished veteran of the Civil War, who is struggling to look after his wife (Gretchen Mol) and two sons. He gets the chance to fix this when notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe), sharp-shooting leader of a gang that has just gunned down and robbed the men aboard a stage coach carrying the South Pacific Railroad’s payroll, is finally arrested.
His job, for which he will be paid a lot of money, is to help the local sheriff escort Wade across the country to a train station from where he will be sent to hang. It’s not easy: he has only one real leg, the journey will take them through Apache land, and Wade, who is a devious escapologist, also has gang members tailing the escort team.
Mangold, proficient rather than truly inspired, is happier chivvying along the plot than dwelling on the brooding atmospherics that characterise some of the best westerns. Crowe, his hair coiffed in the style of a 1980s advertising agency executive, is supremely chilled as Wade, playing him as a smiling lothario rather than as a monster. Bale’s gaunt features are so sharp and abrasive that, in spite of his talk about loving his family, he comes across as utterly isolated.
The two are meant to be enemies, but are united by their spirit of quiet, truculent calculation. The relationship between them on their journey, shifting between coldness and conciliation, protection and pugilism, is unfailingly mesmerising. A terrific turn by Peter Fonda, as a leathery bounty hunter hell-bent on retribution, is a bonus in a film far livelier than anyone had a right to expect.