Christian Bale actually acts, for one thing. Unlike in Batman Begins, where he was only good as Batman and terrible as Bruce Wayne, Bale emotes. As Dan Evans, he brings the audience into his pain, and his feelings of inadequacy. He is a man driven by desperation and by honor, a man who refuses to give up even after it becomes clear that he cannot win. He is a man who is only in the west in order to protect his family, whose ranch is threatened by townsmen who control the water supply and whose only hope is to deliver Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe to the 3:10 train to Yuma. Promised 200 hundred dollars at the start, the journey leads to an understanding between the two men.
Russell Crowe, always an excellent actor and charismatic man, plays Ben Wade to the utmost. He is a breaker of the law, a killer of men, but still contains some goodness inside. His is the story of a man abandoned at the age of 8, who is a straight shooter and a robber extraordinaire. He is an empathetic figure, and an enigmatic figure. He is the wild card, and Russell Crowe plays him with finesse and ease.
The actual movie is both surprising and formulaic. It isn't exactly surprising who lives and who dies. It isn't surprising that it ends up as a morality play. It is indeed a Western. But it is well written; it takes what I hate most about westerns and makes it more than palatable. The film also has surprises in its cast. A cameo by Luke Wilson, more than fit for the old west, is a pleasant -if completely unexpected- surprise. As is Alan Tudyk of Firefly and Serenity fame as the posse's doctor. And Ben Wade's second in command is driven and focused in a slightly endearing way, even as he is as evil a character as the day is long.
Overall, 3:10 to Yuma is not a ground breaking feature. It doesn't even really push the boundaries of the western ouvre. But it is incredibly well made, and well acted. And well worth the 2 hours it takes to watch it.