Every once in a while, two great actors face off on screen—and it feels like time is stopping around them: DeNiro and Pacino in Heat, Hopkins and Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, Hoffman and Hackman in Runaway Jury. The movies may not always be classics, but the scenes involving the stars almost always are. Like jazz musicians sharing a stage, the performers seem to draw energy from the riffs laid down before their own.
That's the vibe created by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of a 1957 Western that feels thrillingly vital. Bale plays Dan Evans, an Arizona homesteader who lost a leg in the Civil War. Deep in debt and in danger of losing the family ranch to railroad expansion, Evans accepts an offer of $200 to join the party transporting infamous bandit Ben Wade (Crowe) to the prison train arriving in a nearby town. It's a short trip, but could end up seeming much longer with the devious Wade along for the ride, and his cold-blooded gang in pursuit.
Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) gives notice from the first scene that he's willing to trust his audience more than genre generally does. It takes a few disorienting minutes before it's clear what's going on at the outset. Mangold builds on that tension once he rolls into some good old-fashioned shoot-outs, combining the appeal of vintage Western action with the grittier modern approach mastered in Unforgiven. As a minimalist man-vs.-man thriller, it delivers the goods.
But its biggest thrills come from those two men. At first, Wade looks suspiciously like the kind of character who's going to turn into a sum of his quirks. He makes pencil sketches of things and people that catch his eye; he quotes Scripture; he commands horses with little more than a low whistle. Screenwriters—and actors—too often become enamored with these little bits of business. Crowe, fortunately, is too savvy to go there. Wade remains an elusive character—one moment a steely-eyed opportunist, the next a slick charmer.
Evans may be easier to pin down—a beaten-down man clinging to a last chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his family, particularly his disillusioned teenage son (Logan Lerman)—but he's harder to play. While Bale has often seemed too aloof an actor to immerse himself fully in a role, here he conveys the gravitas of a man with a very specific moral imperative: not bringing the bad guy to justice but finding self-respect.
Crowe and Bale play wonderfully off one another for nearly two hours, but they find a perfect groove as Evans and Wade hole up in a hotel, waiting for the clock to tick down to the train's 3:10 arrival time. Crowe has to do a lot of the heavy lifting—it's much more essential that we see Wade come to understand Evans than vice versa—but they hit a perfect complement between Wade's hard-edged arrogance and Evans' weary determination.
3:10 to Yuma delivers plenty of other small pleasures, particularly thanks to a terrific supporting cast. Ben Foster nails the icy amorality of Wade's second-in-command Charlie Prince, while Alan Tudyk nicely underplays the timid veterinarian forced into duty as doctor-cum-deputy. Between the slick script and the nerve-wracking build-up to Evans' and Wade's dash to the depot, the film almost never fails to be satisfying.
Perhaps that's what makes its central tete-a-tete even more satisfying. The movie is good enough that they never have to be showy. They just find the harmony that makes for a show-stopping duet.
This story originally appeared in the Salt Lake City Weekly.
Directed by James Mangold
Starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale