Russell Crowe has the Ford role as Ben Wade, the stage-robbing rogue whose charm, intelligence and charisma sit eerily alongside his well-known record as a sociopath - he killed dozens of men, and admits to it with the same nonchalance he brings to a discussion of table manners.
For stolid good-guy Ford, this was a chance to go against type; for Crowe, it's less of a stretch, and he's effectively at ease in the role - he never feels the need to play up his character's malicious side, and that makes him all the more creepy.
When we first meet Wade, he's supervising a bloody stage coach robbery. The scene establishes Wade as a leader of vicious men, but not
merely vicious himself. Mangold's version plays up Wade's "soul of artist" pretensions - he carries a sketchbook, and when he rides into town (recklessly under the nose of the posse that seeks him), he takes time to seduce a waitress and draw her portrait.
There is the suggestion in this new version that Wade, on some level, wants to be caught (it figures into the enigmatic, revamped finale). Still, while Wade may court captivity, there are few who wish to assume responsibility for putting him there. It's considered suicide in the face of the certain retribution by Wade's notoriously ruthless and efficient gang.
The law can muster only five men, including a rancher named Dan (Chistian Bale, never better), so desperate to save his spread he takes the job for $200.
Great westerns are built around the choices men make in lawless places, moral puzzles complicated by the nature of the men involved. "3:10 to Yuma" excels at probing the complex, developing dynamic between the outlaw and the rancher, allowing it to unfold amid a lively action-movie odyssey (the original took place mainly in the confines of a single room).
Wade has obvious contempt for his other escorts (including Peter Fonda in a vivid supporting role), but he takes a strange liking to the rancher. Wade is caught up in Dan's personal history - his fight to save his farm, his desire to impress his teenage son (Logan Lerman), who seems to see Wade's outlaw life as an improvement on his dad's life of servitude and obligation.
The role of Dan's son is greatly expanded here, giving the movie a meaty new dimension that figures in the reworked ending. Since nearly everyone does good work here, I'll give Mangold credit for getting such a good performance from a young actor.
Nearly everyone. I think Mangold missteps in casting Luke Wilson in a cameo as a racist railroad goon - he's too benign and contemporary an actor to make sense here.
Mostly, though, "3:10 to Yuma" updates its source with respect and inventiveness in a way that Ben Wade might appreciate - a little stealing, a little artistry. *
Produced by Cathy Konrad, directed by James Mangold, written by Halsted Welles, Michael Randt and Derek Haas, music by Marco Beltrami, distributed by Lionsgate.