Much earlier in the year, I lavished some very reserved praise on the already-forgotten Seraphim Falls for being, and I am here quoting myself and yes that is wankery, "nothing so much as a tour of the Western...a synthesis of all Westerns."

It would appear that 2007 is now the Year of Western Syntheses, for what do we have now but the kickoff to Oscarbait season, 3:10 to Yuma, a shockingly good remake and yes, a synthesis of all things Western.

The plot is a bit twistier, the film a bit longer and the scope a bit wider than in the 1957 original, but the elegant simplicity at the core of the plot is the same: decent, hardworking, unlucky rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale, typically extraordinary) finds himself with a chance at a life-saving windfall if he can help bring the thief and murderer and man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, atypically extraordinary) to meet the 3:10 prison train to Yuma, AZ out of Contention, a rowdy frontier camp. Wade, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps out of something more devious, starts to snipe at Evans in an increasingly nasty game of psychological one-upsmanship that flowers into a full-on battle of wills.

In the original, those two men were played, respectively, by Van Heflin and Glenn Ford, and a different film it is, indeed. As I've been fond of pointing out in the last few days: Glenn Ford always comes across as such a decent and charming man that even as he plays a brutal killer with nothing better to do than taunt a rancher, we still kind of like him, and that is why the original works as it does. By comparison, Russell Crowe always comes across as kind of scary and dangerous even when especially when he's playing a romantic comedy lead; and that dangerous, scary persona is why the remake works as it does.

For this is a nasty and brutal film, and I of course mean those things to be complimentary. Unlike the original, in which something like five people die, dozens of bodies litter the new film, with lovingly-rendered blood and gore effects keeping things good and upsetting.

Now, when I said that this film was a synthesis, I had two thoughts in mind, and the more important, or at least the more interesting, is this: 3:10 to Yuma takes as traditional a Western set-up as you could hope to find - one brave soul doing what's right because it's right and because nobody else will do it - and treats it with the tonal aggressiveness of the early neo-westerns, the Sergio Leone/Sam Peckinpah/Clint Eastwood exercises in chic nihilism. Something feels altogether wrong about watching this story done in this style: perhaps it's mere familiarity with the source, but I found the raw viciousness on display here to be most difficult to process. The framework of Once Upon a Time in the West or The Wild Bunch somehow "normalises" the violent excesses of those films, but the framework of a story once acted by Glenn Ford and Van Heflin brings that violence back around to an almost unbearable place.

Again, notice that "wrong" and "difficult" and "unbearable" are to be the highest terms of praise.

The other thing about 3:10 to Yuma is how very much it trades on and violates the iconography of the Western genre. Quickly, what is the one type of image you expect to see in this kind of film? Did you say "gorgeous wide-open vistas"? I do hope so. Guess what you'll see practically none of in this film?

But it's not peevishness that leads to this abandonment of the most quintessentially Western of Western tropes (at least I hope it isn't). Being a genre film made in the '00s, 3:10 to Yuma inevitably functions as a post-modern deconstruction of and referendum on the archetypes of its genre, and the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael (which otherwise feels very traditional indeed, with its marvelous collection of deep shadows and blinding sun) is simply the most obvious way that is done. It's a visual shorthand that means, "this is not a Western, it's a 'Western,' because for God's sake, the '50s are dead, man."

A similar impulse drives the plot, which in its particulars has been changed rather hugely from the original. Not in the first act, which is simply a longer version of the same (reflecting the new film's expanded running time). I refer to the middle of the film, the journey by which Evans and his band of ill-chosen volunteers bring Wade through the rough country from the tiny hamlet of Bisbee to Contention. In the original, this was literally done in hardly a dozen shots, and virtually the last hour of the film was the psychodrama between the two men in a chintzy hotel room as everyone Dan knew, even down to his wife, begged him to abandon his conscience and let the bad man go. Here, some half of the whole movie - about an hour - is dedicated to that three-day journey between towns, taking the party through Apache country and a mining camp, among other locales. On one hand, this change is purely sensible: we already have one 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma, why would we want another? But it's also a sort of meta-narrative "tour of the Western," to coin a phrase: here are the Indians, check, and here are the rag-tag prospectors, check, and here is the lonely campfire on the plains, check...just as much as the imagery plays with our expectations of "the Western," so does the travelogue-esque story.

I must give credit to director James Mangold: he knows his genre. To be perfectly honest, I've always regarded the man as a bit of a wreck: some Kate & Leopold here, some Girl, Interrupted there, and in Walk the Line, a biopic so mannered that even the notoriously middlebrow Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn't be roused to toss more than a couple acting nominations its way. And now this mad, brutal Rosetta Stone for one of the richest of all cinematic vocabularies, practically perfect in every way. Maybe all he's needed all these years was to direct a little bit of action; he certainly is very good at it here. To be fair, most of what he does is pastiche, but such wonderful pastiche! Here we have, for the first time in years, an unabashed all-American Western that does honor to the decades of tradition which make up that name. It feels so very wonderful to be able to say that.