Ben Wade leads a gang on robbery after robbery of stagecoaches bearing payroll cash. His target here is a coach carrying the payroll for the railroad company, a coach being protected by Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) and hired Pinkerton guns. It is during this robbery that the paths of Evans and Wade cross, forever sealing their mutual fate.
Following the crossing of paths, Wade is found in the nearby town of Bisby. This is where he is captured with the intention of being taken to the town of Contention to be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma. To take him there the representative from the railroad, Mr. Butterfield (Grayson Roberts), needs a group of men to play transport guard. Evans, looking to make some money, offers his services. The rest of the film follows this band on their way to Contention with the remainder of Wade's gang, led by Wade's right hand man, psychotic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), hot on their trail.
That is really all the plot you need to know. What makes the story so interesting and the film so good is the relationship that builds between Evans and Wade as they make the trip from Bisby to Contention — well, that and the first rate performances delivered by Bale and Crowe and many in the extended supporting cast.
Evans is a man who is on the brink of losing everything. He chooses to bring Wade to justice as a way to prove his worth to his wife and sons while also trying to survive in incredibly trying times. Christian Bale brings a great intensity and purpose to his performance. While, Wade is a man who is more than a mere outlaw, he is a man with a brain behind his eyes that is constantly in motion doing what is expected of a man in his position. Crowe adds depth to a role that could just as easily have been played as a straight-up bad guy. He brings an easiness to the role that not many other actors could. Just watch him as he controls the screen,delivering dialogue that is more than just words, bringing about reactions in those around him. It is fascinating to watch the interaction between Crowe and Bale.
Everything comes together not in a hail of bullets (though, there are gunfights to be sure), but in a moment of quiet conversation between the two which forces you to read between the lines to see what's going on. It is a quiet buildup to an explosive finale, a finale which was sealed from the moment the two crossed paths.