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‘3:10 to Yuma’ is remake that tops original

James Mangold’s "3:10 to Yuma" restores the heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence. The Western, in its glory days, was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier. Audiences’ appetite for morality plays seems to be fading. Here, the quality of the acting and the thought behind the film make it seem like a vanguard of something new though it’s a remake.

The plot is so easily told that Elmore Leonard wrote it as a short story. A man named Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who lost a leg in the Civil War, has moved to the Arizona territory to try his luck at ranching. It’s going badly, made worse by a neighboring bully who wants to force him off his land. The territory still fears American Indian raids, and just as much the lawless gang led by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), which holds up stagecoaches, robs banks and casually murders people. Evans finds himself part of a posse escorting Wade to the nearby town of Contention, where the 3:10 p.m. train will transport Wade to the Yuma prison and a certain death sentence.

Both Evans and Wade have elements in their characters that come under test. Evans fears he has lost the confidence of his wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol), and teenage son, Will (Logan Lerman), who doubt he can make the ranch work. Alice does not see why her transplanted Eastern husband should risk his life as a volunteer. Will idealizes the outlaw, and when Evans realizes the boy has followed the posse, he orders him to return home. "He ain’t following you," Wade says. "He’s following me."

Wade draws, reads, philosophizes and is incomparably smarter than the scum in his gang. Having spent untold time on the run with them, he may find it refreshing to be with Evans, even as his captive. Eventually the two end up in a room in the Contention hotel, surrounded by armed men who want to rescue Wade or kill him.

These general outlines also describe the 1957 version of "3:10 to Yuma," directed by Delmer Daves, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in the roles of the rancher and the outlaw. The movie, with its railroad timetable, followed the slowly advancing clock in "High Noon" (1952) and was compared to it; when I saw it in the 1980s, I thought it was better than "High Noon."

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Mangold’s version is better than the original because it has better actors with more thought behind their dialogue. Bale plays not simply a hero, but a man who has avoided such risks and is almost at a loss to explain why he is bringing a killer to justice, except that having been mistreated, he takes a stand. Crowe, on the other hand, plays not merely a merciless killer, but a man capable of surprising himself.

"3:10 to Yuma" has two roles that need a special character flavor and fills them perfectly. Peter Fonda plays McElroy, a professional bounty hunter who would rather claim the price on Wade’s head than let the government execute him for free. Ben Foster plays Charlie Prince, the second-in-command of Wade’s gang, who seems half in love with Wade, or maybe Charlie’s half-aware that he’s all in love. Wade would know which and wouldn’t care, except as material for his study of human nature.

Locked in the hotel room, Evans and Wade begin to talk. Each has found his equal in conversation. Crowe and Bale play this dialogue so precisely that it never reveals itself for what it really is, a process of mutual insight.

In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western. Attend well to Wade’s last words in this movie, whom he says them to and why.

Classified: R (for violence and some language). Rating: Four stars.

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