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Remake of 'Yuma' hits the mark

Is it my imagination, or have the movies gone into the Wayback Machine and come out in the late 1950s? Genres thought dead and moldering in their film canisters are suddenly back on their feet. ‘‘Hairspray,’’ ‘‘Once,’’ and even Disney’s ‘‘High School Musical’’ have revived the musical, and now the classic western is getting a reboot. Early buzz on ‘‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’’ is building well in advance of its October release; until then, we’ll have to be content with the lean, almost absurdly satisfying ‘‘3:10 to Yuma.’’

This one’s actually a remake of a 1957 movie of the same title, one in a string of tough, mature Eisenhower-era oaters. (‘‘High Noon’’ is the best known, but by x all means seek out the series of westerns James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann.) Based on an early Elmore Leonard short story, the original starred Glenn Ford as a legendary outlaw and Van Heflin as the average-guy rancher charged with conveying the villain to the title train that will take him to justice.

In the new ‘‘3:10 to Yuma,’’ the outlaw, Ben Wade, is played by Russell Crowe The rancher, Dan Evans, is played by Christian Bale. Nostalgists can kick all they want, but this is an improvement. Both actors are among the best, most intuitively creative we have, and whatever transpires offscreen in Crowe’s case, onscreen they only serve their characters. Neither man showboats here, and it’s a thrill to watch them work.

The rancher is one step from complete failure when the movie opens. The man who owns his land wants to burn Dan out so the railroad can come through; drought has ruined the growing season; his wife (Gretchen Mol) and 14-year-old son William (Logan Lerman) look on him with contempt. Dan came out of the Civil War with a wooden leg, and we sense the other one’s about to go.

By contrast, Ben Wade is a stone8hearted killer and Dan’s opposite number, but as in the original he’s anything but crude. Crowe rarely raises his voice the entire picture, keeping it in the conversational upper register of his range. Ben is something of a self-taught intellectual with a minor in human nature; to see him seduce a barmaid (Vinessa Shaw) with talk alone — and to almost do the same to both Dan and his wife in separate scenes — is to witness a snake and a snake charmer in one irresistible package.

Wade’s gang holds up a stagecoach carrying railroad money; it’s guarded by a contingent of Pinkerton detectives led by a grizzled ex-Indian fighter named Byron McElroy. Peter Fonda does something quite wonderful with this role: He plays John Wayne as a highly functioning S.O.B. (An ex-hippie’s revenge on the Duke or an actor’s inspired choice? The performance works as both.)

Flush with their own invincibility, the robbers ride to the nearby outpost of Bisbee, where a momentary lapse results in Wade being taken prisoner by the local law. A hastily gathered posse convenes to get the badman to the train depot in Contention, five days away, and they’re a classic crew of mixed types: the bookish town horse doctor (Alan Tudyk), the young braggart (Kevin Durand), the dandified Southern Pacific company man (Dallas Roberts). McElroy leads the group; Dan signs up in exchange for $200 that he prays will save his ranch.

Trailing them at a jackal’s distance is Charlie Prince, Wade’s second in command and one of those quivering nutjobs that genre movies love to offer talented young actors. Ben Foster (‘‘Alpha Dog’’) rises to the occasion; behind Charlie’s unblinking blue eyes is a loyalty to his boss that goes beyond propriety, sexuality, even sanity. The boy’s mesmerizing.

Over the course of the journey to Contention, as the ever-dwindling posse deals with the hostile remnants of the Apache nation, corrupt railroad men (including Luke Wilson, in a smallish role), and Dan’s own rebellious son, a bond grows between the rancher and the outlaw. Both of them are surprised to see the decency in Dan grow stronger with testing; each finds things to like and to detest in the other man.

This sort of relationship has to be played just right to work, and Bale and Crowe never once misstep. The former finds new shades for his air of wounded gravity — Bale’s one of the few actors who can make earnestness interesting — while Crowe dances between the playful, the cunning, and the lethal without breaking a sweat.

The direction by James Mangold (‘‘Walk the Line’’) is similarly unfussy, devoted to narrative momentum and deepening character without making a big deal about it. Mangold is consciously fashioning an old-school Hollywood western here, and he steers clear of ‘‘Deadwood’’ revisionism. The approach is honest and foursquare, and he has the filmmaking chops to put it across, but the classicism sometimes gets laid on a bit thick. Mol and Shaw are the prettiest Arizona settlers seen since John Ford was in his prime.

Then there’s the problem of the film’s ending, which sticks (as does much of the dialogue) to the letter and spirit of the 1957 original. Without spoiling things, I can say that one character suddenly behaves in a profoundly uncharacteristic way, so much so that we’re left scratching our heads. It’s a twist that works in a short story and that you still might buy in a 1950s film, but it makes little to no sense in a post-Clint Eastwood universe, at least without the proper set-up.

Until then, ‘‘3:10 to Yuma’’ is a tonic: a throwback expertly retrofitted with new parts. In one telling campfire scene, Dan has to slice up the handcuffed Wade’s steak dinner, and the badman patiently instructs his captor to pare away the fat and the gristle. That’s how Mangold prefers it, too: lean and well-done.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/%movies/blog.

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