3:10 to Yuma

The good guys in “3:10 to Yuma” expend a lot of effort to get Ben Wade, a murdering S.O.B., to the train station so that he can be transported to jail and given a fair trial. After that trial, he will be hanged. No one doubts that. The trial is practically a formality. This is the Old West, where justice is speedy and not burdened by plea bargains or parole agreements.

So the question is, why bother? Some of the good guys lose their lives protecting Wade and taking him to the Arizona town of Contention, where he’ll catch the train to his final destiny. Why is it worth the effort? Why not just kill him here and now?

And that’s the point of “3:10 to Yuma,” of course. You can’t just appoint yourself judge, jury, and executioner. Law and order have a tenuous hold in the Wild West as it is, and it’s only by adhering to the codes of honor and justice that society can survive. Maybe Ben Wade doesn’t deserve protection. It’s certainly unfair that men have to die to preserve his life until justice can be administered. But if you go the other way — if the men guarding him just take the law into their own hands and kill him — then you’re on the road to anarchy.

This is an excellent film, one of the best Westerns in years, and a respectful remake of the well-regarded 1957 original, whose screenwriter, Halsted Welles, is even credited on the new script. (He’s aided by younger fellows Michael Brandt and Derek Haas; they’re all working from an Elmore Leonard short story.) It feels like a natural progression for director James Mangold to make a true Western after doing the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” and he handles the tropes of the genre smoothly.

The story’s reluctant and taciturn hero is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a Civil War veteran with a bum leg who has a small ranch in Arizona with his wife (Gretchen Mol) and two boys. The younger, Mark (Benjamin Petry), is in poor health and needs the Southwest’s warm, dry climate. The older, Will (Logan Lerman), is 14 and wishes his dad were more like the heroes in the dime novels he reads. The family struggles to get by and is facing displacement, as local rich jerk Hollander (Lennie Loftin) plans to sell their land to the railroad right out from under them.

So it is that Dan desperately needs the $200 offered to anyone who will help transport outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Contention and safely put him on a train. Dan and the boys witnessed Wade’s brutality firsthand when they stumbled upon a stagecoach robbery for which Wade and his gang were responsible. Dan is in it for the money initially, but he has a sense of justice and fairness, too.

Things go awry as the posse — led by railroad executive Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) and accompanied by a wounded bounty hunter (Peter Fonda) and a small-town doctor (Alan Tudyk) — tries to keep Wade in check while they travel to Contention. Wade’s faithful followers, headed by the insanely loyal Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), find out where they’re going and pledge to rescue their leader.

And then there’s Wade himself. Played with charming menace by Russell Crowe, he’s an Old West version of Hannibal Lecter: brilliant, devious, capable of concealing weapons and escaping from escape-proof restraints, and something close to pure evil. Yet he abides by a certain code of ethics (as do most bad guys in Westerns), even while insisting he’s no good. Somehow we get the feeling that no matter what happens, and no matter who else’s throat he slits, he won’t kill Dan Evans.

Is he no good? Is he irredeemable? That’s beside the point. He’s an unrepentant thief and murderer. When the railroad bigwig lists all the money he’s stolen, Wade helpfully points out that he killed a lot of people in the process — not that the railroad cares so much about that.

The film is rife with memorable performances, including young Logan Lerman as Dan’s contentious son and Ben Foster in yet another role where he’s a straight-up lunatic. And there’s the legendary Peter Fonda, and the always-reliable Alan Tudyk, and Luce Rains, with a face meant for Westerns, as the town marshal. And of course Christian Bale — one of the most talented and versatile actors currently working — breathing life into the role of Dan Evans.

Most of the old Westerns were plot-driven, with characterization and thematic messages underplayed or simplified. Modern tastes demand a little more substance, and so Mangold does the right thing in playing up the good-vs-bad themes and focusing on the overriding principles of honor and justice. You can forgive the film getting a little too full of speeches here and there, primarily because it’s usually the electrifying Russell Crowe delivering them. There’s no skimping on the action, either, which is as exciting as you want it to be.

As Westerns go, this is the real deal. It combines Old West values with modern filmmaking sensibilities, and it never fails to be compelling, right down to the tense, harrowing finale. John Wayne and Glenn Ford and Gary Cooper would be proud. Heck, I bet Johnny Cash would like it, too.

A- (1 hr., 57 min.; R, some harsh profanity, a lot of shooting violence.)