Even when hemorrhaging from a bullet to the gullet and caked with blood, dust and spit, a bounty hunter gasps a breath to offer his full name. With such dutiful greetings like that, it’s hard to dub 3:10 to Yuma — director James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 Western — a revisionist work.
Like its genre’s best, Yuma is a sturdy, compelling tale that entwines history, hardships, honor, pistols and pride with the knowledge that in all great Westerns, everyone prefers gray get-ups to all black or all white. Toss in great dirt-choked cinematography from Phedon Papamichael and punchy psychological bonding and duality in Michael Brandt and Derek Haas’s updated screenplay.
The biggest difference is that Russell Crowe and Christian Bale drip so much tension into their upper-lip sweat that the Production Code would have swooned at it 50 years ago. Imagine the smelling salts necessary had Delmer Daves’ original offered disarming cuts to mid-murder stabs with squishing sounds of a nicked artery. No campfire fade-outs to bloodless corpse fade-ins here.
Mangold’s film is unapologetically harsh, but also heedlessly entertaining despite its imperfections — an early, goofy digital explosion, characters acting dumb to keep the plot moving and an ending that defies all known logic of limping. That’s because it’s easy to see why Bale and Crowe jumped aboard. So formidable they could wear red and intimidate charging bulls, the duo exchanges as much psychological manipulation as gunfire in a roiling, masterful battle of wills.
Times are tough for Southwestern rancher Dan Evans (Bale). He left his leg behind in the Civil War, faces foreclosure on his property from railroad developers and can’t afford medicine to ease the tuberculosis wheeze of his youngest son. Dan seems to have backed into everything in life, so it’s no surprise his trapping of notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) feels as inadvertent.
Ben brandishes a pistol dubbed the Hand of God and isn’t above wasting his own lackeys to make a point. Still, even though he’s killed “more men than the drought,” Ben’s not always a shoot-first kind of guy. At least not when he finds worthy foes he can respect and survey to exploit their weaknesses. His own soft spot for curvy barmaids causes Ben to linger too long in town after his posse pilfers a bank stagecoach.
Dan conversationally delays Ben long enough in the saloon for authorities to nab him and tab him for the title train to an Arizona prison. The trick is getting Ben there without being ambushed by his gang, now headed by psychotic second-in-command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, who’s finally found the perfect modulation between his characters’ meek appearance and deranged brains).
Counting on a $200 bounty to save his homestead, Dan leads a secretive convoy that includes: a meek veterinarian (Alan Tudyk); a railroad thug (Kevin Durand); a grizzled bounty hunter (Peter Fonda); and a well-groomed banker (Dallas Roberts). Naturally, their greatest enemy is walking in shackles beside them, one who will reserve attacking Dan’s mental predicaments until the end.
Dialing it back from expected gritted-teeth machismo, Bale smartly underplays peaceable Dan’s honor and integrity. His passionate plea to his wife (Gretchen Mol) to join the convoy is delivered in a whisper that’s packed with all of the regret and remorse he has over all his past indecision.
By contrast, Ben thinks over every angle so that even as chaos descends, he controls how it affects him. Like Hannibal Lecter in spurs, Ben is both frighteningly seductive and repulsive, peddling his life’s material pleasures while basking in its animal brutality. Crowe hasn’t been a baddie in more than a decade, but brilliantly revels in the morally thorny territory he gets as Ben.
Even helping Dan in a harrowing escape from a Chinese railroad camp, Ben knows just how a tossed stick of dynamite might appeal to his seething anger. Yuma is filled with such great touches, namely how the price on Ben’s head is the same as a chilling third-act blood-money offer.
It’s in that finale that Dan and Ben reach an unlikely understanding about a fighting chance to go down shooting. The ensuing bloody gunplay choreography doesn’t come close to matching messy realism of recent Westerns like Open Range, but it doesn’t need to. Yuma is more feverish, less ruminative, and its conclusion perfectly marries pulp-fiction finality to hyper-modern film moves.