(CNN) -- For a good part of the last century, and certainly throughout Hollywood's golden age, the Western was a staple in any boy's imaginative diet. The lore was so deeply engrained, it seemed to stand for America itself.
Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are on opposite sides in "3:10 to Yuma."
Then, for any number of reasons, we grew out of that mythology. The movies, by and large, gave up on the genre; save for occasional brave forays by Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, it's been a box office non-starter since the 1970s.
It will be interesting to see if the drawing power of Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt (in the forthcoming "Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") can buck that trend. Director James Mangold's expert and entertaining "3:10 to Yuma" demonstrates both the Western's age-old appeal, and the problems it presents to a contemporary filmmaker.
Tellingly, it begins with the image of a sickly, tubercular child, rasping for breath in the night, and then the flare of a light as his older brother reaches for a dime-store paperback, a well-thumbed cowboy yarn he means to read before sleep. These two boys don't know it, but they will influence everything their father does over the next two days.
Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is an honest rancher -- which is to say, poor. He's crippled by debt, and crippled physically too, a souvenir from the War Between the States. Offered $200 to escort the outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) safely into custody on the 3:10 train with a makeshift posse comprising a veterinarian (Alan Tudyk), a wounded Pinkerton operative (Peter Fonda) and a businessman (Dallas Roberts), Dan does it for the money, for respect, and because he believes it's the right thing to do.
Over the course of the journey, the articulate, genial Wade whittles away at each of these convictions, even as he looks for any opportunity to level off the odds.
Adapted from an early short story by Elmore Leonard that was previously filmed very capably in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, "3:10 to Yuma" strikes a fair balance between physical action and psychological warfare, but always at its core is the question of how we are to measure these two men.
Crowe plays Wade very gently. He's a man utterly at ease with himself, commanding and confident no matter that he spends much of the picture in chains. Crowe's performance makes him all the more attractive.
It's also clear that he's utterly ruthless. Crowe demonstrates that, too.
By contrast, Christian Bale's Evans is still striving to prove something. He may occupy the moral high ground, but most often he's the one picking himself out of the dust. It's not just that the Devil has all the best tunes, he's more of a real man too.
Mangold has made this film before -- or one very much like it. The police thriller "Copland" was really an urban Western, with Sylvester Stallone as the honest, inadequate small-town sheriff and Harvey Keitel as the corrupt, capable NYPD detective. "3:10 to Yuma" is a much better movie. The story is more muscular and direct, and the shading is more artful.
Even so, Mangold has a job creating a satisfying, redemptive resolution. If the ending works it's on the basis that these two very different men recognize and respond to an unlikely kinship: the shame of a father, the pain of a son.
Is that enough to redeem a killer? I didn't believe it but I wanted to. I suspect James Mangold would say the same.
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