What is it with Russell Crowe and Bisbee, Arizona? The desert hamlet (population hovering around 6,000 at last count) was where Crowe's wounded cop, Bud White, headed at the conclusion of L.A. Confidential, to retire as the husband of a hooker-turned-dress-shop- proprietress bearing a striking resemblance to Veronica Lake. It's also where his legendary bandit, Ben Wade, begins what threatens to be an altogether less pleasant retirement when he's captured by the law in 3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold's evocative new remake of the 1957 Western classic.
Bisbee isn't the only echo shared by the nearly homonymous Crowe roles. White and Wade are both damaged quasi-orphans--the former, left alone with his mother's corpse for three days; the latter, abandoned with a Bible for the same span. And both grow up to be thoughtful brutes: the strong-arm cop who discovers he has the makings of a true detective after all, and the remorseless killer who delights in sketching animals and quoting Proverbs. Crowe has a gift for such roles, for locating tender spots in the hardest of men, and his performance in 3:10 to Yuma enticingly (if rather perversely) elevates villainy to something approaching heroism.
As is typical of the genre, the story is a simple one. After robbing a stage coach, Wade stops to enjoy a little female companionship in nearby Bisbee. But he enjoys it a little too long and is caught by the local marshal, with an assist by an unassuming rancher named Dan Evans (Christian Bale). It's decided that Wade should be taken to Contention City where, in two days' time, he can be placed on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Desperate for money to save his drought-ridden ranch, Evans agrees to accompany the team transporting Wade in exchange for 200 dollars. Such princely inducement is necessary because Wade's band of murderous cohorts is still at large and will doubtless seek to free him, preferably with copious bloodshed. After a simple subterfuge intended to convince them he's been taken by wagon in the opposite direction, the small party sets out for Contention and the train that, they hope, will bear evil out of their world.
Whereas the 1957 original, directed by Delmer Daves, didn't add much to this skeletal storyline, Mangold has put a little more meat on the bones. On the ride to Contention, the band encounters Apache braves intent on harming palefaces in general and railway-company vigilantes intent on harming Wade in particular. Alliances of convenience are formed and re-formed: Evans and a bully who'd been sent to collect his debts unite against Wade; Evans and Wade unite against the Apache. Evans's 14-year-old son even tags along to provide an Oedipal theme and heighten the emotional stakes.
Such alterations have the effect of making Mangold's film bigger and darker than the previous version, which improves the film in some respects but diminishes it in others. In the original, for instance, the opening stagecoach job was a quiet affair involving no initial gunfire, merely the announcement by Wade (played with marvelous understatement by Glenn Ford), "We don't aim to bother anybody. We just aim to get what's under that tarpaulin." But 2007 is not 1957, so this time around there is a great deal of "bothering"--a high speed chase, Gatling-gun fire, dynamite, et cetera--and while this certainly makes for a more thrilling introduction, a certain degree of elegance is lost, both from the film and from Wade's character. So, too, with the almost inhuman feats of violence--an assassination with cutlery, an equine variation on defenestration--Wade commits during the journey to Contention.
But if Mangold's vision of Wade occasionally veers a little far toward Hannibal Lecterhood, Crowe never loses control of him. Wade is a villain who knows his words can often be put to better use than bullets, and Crowe neatly conveys the serpentine self-assurance with which he attempts to entwine Evans with promises of safety and comfort for his family. When those efforts meet only with intransigence, he bestows upon the rancher a grudging respect that borders on admiration.
Though Bale delivers a typically committed performance as Evans, it inevitably registers less emphatically: His, after all, is the straight moral path around which Crowe performs his playful peregrinations. (The Evans role was played by a stoic Van Heflin in the original; in homage to that performance, Mangold named the hero of his second film, Cop Land, Freddy Heflin.) Around the margins, Peter Fonda is a pleasure as a Pinkerton bounty hunter so bloodthirsty as to make Wade seem kittenish, and Ben Foster is a still greater one as Wade's chief henchman, a slender, strutting sadist with pale, soulless eyes and glam-rock attire.
But in the end it comes down, as it must, to Evans and Wade, and the long walk from their temporary hideout in the Contention City hotel to the train station, beset on all sides by men with guns. Here, Mangold truly falters. Once again, he enlarges upon an idea in the original, but in so doing he pushes it beyond plausibility, engineering a dramatic reversal too coy in its contrariness and strained in its psychology. Among other faults, we're meant to take satisfaction in a new ending that is, by any conventional measure, a deeply unhappy one. It's a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise fine film, though hardly a crippling one. 3:10 to Yuma is a good Western--by contemporary standards, a very good one--but, for whatever reason, Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make a great one. That's a train for which, it seems, we wait in vain.