Two of the finest westerns of the 1950s traded in a particularly wily brand of snake-charming antagonist, an outlaw being brought to frontier justice but vexing the vulnerable protagonists something fierce en route. One was "The Naked Spur," in which Robert Ryan's manic chortle sent shivers down the spine of James Stewart. The other was "3:10 to Yuma," a terrific and melancholy wonder featuring Glenn Ford in his most compelling portrayal, opposite Van Heflin, whose woeful bearing always made him easy prey for demons, human or psychological.
Director James Mangold's remake of "3:10 to Yuma" brings a wagon of new ammunition and a nervous restlessness to territory staked out a half-century ago by the original. The old one, directed by Delmer Daves, is back in circulation this month via a Sony Pictures DVD reissue. So as the old blues song says, we have two trains running.
Rare is the remake that meets or exceeds the merits of any film, and while Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma" is certainly diverting, it is not quite one of those rarities. I wish Mangold had brought more of the stoicism and leanness of purpose he brought to "Walk the Line," his previous (and best) picture. This one feels overplotted and jumpy, though it is never dull.
The acting is its chief strength. Russell Crowe brings a cocky charisma to Ben Wade, the outlaw whose exploits in the post-Civil War era have made his name a legend and, to impressionable minds, a hero. The film opens with the oldest son of a farmer reading a dime novel inspired by just such an outlaw. The boy's father is Dan Evans, played by Christian Bale. The actor knows how to make a good man an interesting man, and a human being as opposed to a saint.
Times are hard for this family. The crops need rain, and desperate for money, Dan joins a posse charged with bringing Wade to justice by accompanying him from Bisbee, Ariz., to a town called Contention. From there, the titular train will take Wade to court, if Wade doesn't mess with the plan.
The original "Yuma" featured very little gunplay and built its suspense through character. Mangold is a character man as well, but his script betrays conflicting impulses. The relationship between the two men remains at the heart of things, but an awful lot of detours and back stories and side characters jostle for attention.
Wade's gang is dead set on saving their leader, and the most psychotic of the bad guys (Ben Foster, genuinely frightening) slaughters men left and right, moving like a hopped-up marionette off his strings. The script expands greatly on the Bisbee-to-Contention part of the story and invents such characters as a weary Pinkerton operative played by Peter Fonda. Mangold stages a tense stagecoach robbery that turns bloody; throughout the film, in the New Mexico exteriors or the farmhouse and saloon interiors, the director keeps the camera very close to the actors' faces, while editor Michael McCusker serrates the edge of each new encounter. The technique holds you, and Crowe and Bale work well together; Wade and Evans represent two sides of the same coin, more alike than they realize.
You can't say the same about the two "Yumas." Mangold's version runs off the rails in the final half-hour, stretching its gunplay and reversals beyond any good sense. Even with a tough-minded change of fate for one of the major characters, the outcome doesn't carry the dramatic kick it should. Those who have a deeper abiding love for the western genre than I, may love the new "Yuma." I liked a good deal of it--just enough to be frustrated by the clutter.