MOVIE REVIEW- Wild western: '3:10 to Yuma' worth Crowe-ing about

If you've ever wondered why most actors (as opposed to movie stars) would rather play villains than heroes, watch Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in 3:10 to Yuma. Both do excellent work, but Bale, as the hero, seems to be working a lot harder for a smaller portion of audience admiration.

Ben Wade, Crowe's charismatic villain, is so smart, sexy, confident, and funny– while never denying he's pure evil– you can understand why Hell is more crowded than Heaven: Heaven, like the Democratic Party, can't find someone this appealing to convey its virtues.

Remaking a Western from 50 years ago, director James Mangold (doing a far better job than on the overrated Walk the Line) combines the best of old and new techniques, for the most part. Cameras can do things they couldn't do in 1957, and effects can make it look like they're doing even more, so the film is visually stunning in a contemporary way. Mangold dares to build suspense in a leisurely manner that's wonderful but may not resonate with modern audiences (although the final bloodbath will send action fans home happy).

The editing is mostly old school, rather than MTV style, but there are some disconcerting and briefly disorienting cuts, especially early in the film, from one plot thread to another.

Halsted Welles, who adapted the 1957 screenplay from an Elmore Leonard short story, is credited with Michael Brandt and Derek Haas for the new one, which is more psychologically complex. It's so complex, in fact, that one can imagine Crowe asking, "What's my motivation?" and being told, "To do something the audience isn't expecting, whether it fits your character or not."

Bale wins our sympathy first as Dan Evans, a poor rancher who lost a leg in the Union Army. As a prelude to foreclosing on his ranch, the local moneylender has his barn burned down, making Dan look ineffectual– not for the first time– to his wife (Gretchen Mol) and sons.

The 14-year-old, Will (Logan Lerman), rides into town with Dan to report the arson, but on the way they see Wade's gang rob a stagecoach. While the law is out investigating, the gang enjoys the town, but eventually Ben is captured. His gang obviously plans to free him, so most of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game. Dan, to earn money to save the ranch, volunteers to be part of the ill-equipped escort taking Ben to Contention to catch the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison.

Despite being handcuffed and unarmed, the manipulative Ben has the upper hand most of the way. He eliminates his captors one by one, but also saves their butts on occasion, and they return the favor. They reach Contention with plenty of time for a showdown before the train arrives, and the screenplay goes a step beyond the High Noon idea that the townsfolk are afraid to help.

Performances are good all down the line, including a hardly recognizable Peter Fonda as Pinkerton bounty hunter Byron McElroy. The big scene-stealer is Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Ben's soulless killing machine of a sidekick.

Is it coincidental that 3:10 to Yuma is opening the weekend of Farm Aid? It turns out Dan's losing his ranch because the railroad's coming through and the land is about to increase in value. You don't have to read between the lines to see the small family farm has been endangered for a long time.

Contemporary relevance can also be found when Ben taunts Dan about being willing to die to protect the railroad's money, which is what he stole from the stagecoach.

An argument could be made that 3:10 to Yuma is an unnecessary remake, as it doesn't improve on or radically change (except perhaps the ending– I'm not telling) the original. What it represents, however, is a return to good old-fashioned suspenseful storytelling, rescuing some babies that have been thrown out with bathwater in an ongoing competition to push the cinematic envelope.