Times are tough at the ranch for hobbled Civil War vet Christian Bale, a man powerless to stop his drought stricken-property going to the wall. So, when he grabs an unexpected payday helping the sheriff escort gang leader Russell Crowe across country to the train station where he can be packed off to jail, it’s not just about the money – it’s his chance to do something worthwhile. Trouble is, the prisoner’s henchmen are at large, there’s hostile territory to negotiate, and Crowe’s a master manipulator, with any number of reasons the rancher should accept the thief’s pay-off and spare himself death.
Elmore Leonard’s original story offered a cracking premise for the taut 1957 version and brings a core of tension to this expansive remake. Given that the Western’s an endangered species, it’s understandable James Mangold (‘Walk the Line’) should direct like a man who might never make another one, hence the pumped-up stagecoach chases and revisionist digressions (yes, Chinese coolies pretty much built America’s railroads) which at times threaten to lose sight of the central conflict. It’s all vividly mounted however, done with obvious affection, and if it lacks the laser precision of Delmer Daves’ original, the script brings added moral complexities with a key role for Bale’s adventure-hungry teenage son. The two leads’ sparking byplay, Crowe’s addled cockiness versus Bale’s nervy grit, would grace any surroundings, but it’s a pleasure to revisit the frontier in a drama which feels far more vital than mere nostalgic homage.