I have had high hopes of the director James Mangold ever since he made the tough, compelling Cop Land back in 1997, though nothing he has done in the meantime (including his Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line) has come anywhere near matching it.
This, however, a remake of the 1957 western, returns to the theme of impugned masculinity that Cop Land probed so carefully. Christian Bale plays a near-destitute Arizona rancher, Dan Evans, who has a crippled leg that he sustained during the Civil War. Threatened with losing both his land and the respect of his older son (Logan Lerman), Evans takes a dangerous but well-paid job with a posse that's escorting the notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention, where he will be put on the 3.10 to Yuma prison. But Wade's gang are in furious pursuit of the escort.
Evans has toiled most of his life without reward, and sees the strain of that hardship in his disappointed wife (Gretchen Mol); he knows this job is his last throw of the dice before the railroad comes and drives him off the land. Wade, on the other hand, has lived by doing exactly as he wants – mainly robbing and murdering – and carries himself with an amused swagger. He's isolated from his band of cut-throats by virtue of his intelligence and a raffish streak of culture: he sketches competently, he quotes from the Bible, and he has manners enough to thank Evans's wife for the dinner she prepared. But he's also fascinated and provoked by Evans's unwavering moral integrity, the blind perseverance in a system of values that the railroads, the army and even the law ride roughshod over. The suspense of the story (by Elmore Leonard in the 1950s) rests on whether the two men will ever meet in the middle.
The interest is deepened by the contrast in acting styles. Bale does his glowering, humourless intensity pretty well, and he lets silences say a good deal about his cussedness; it's the same kind of character that Joel McCrea played in Peckinpah's Ride The High Country, the decent man who only wants "to enter my house justified", but knows the cost of such honesty.
Crowe is a killer with a sense of romance; he has a way with women, it seems, and a way with murdering a man by table fork. It's an amazingly relaxed performance, and a good one – he hasn't been this commanding since Gladiator.
On the edges of the film, Ben Foster as a brutish sidekick, and Peter Fonda as a weathered bounty hunter, make strong impressions. Mangold handles the outbreaks of violence with notable expertise, and even the old standard of a stagecoach robbery is conveyed with a blistering charge.
There are other old Western tropes here, principally the troubled ties of father and son. Evans sees that Wade's devilish charisma bewitches his 14-year-old son, and there's a hint that his moral rectitude is also shaped by a need to win the boy back. More complicated is the faintly filial relationship between Foster's young psychopath and Wade, and it becomes problematic at the end of the movie when Foster's Prince, who for all his viciousness has shown only loyalty to his "king", suddenly has the rug pulled from under him. A shame that it ends on this one false note, but up to that point 3.10 To Yuma fairly races along.