Screenplay : Roderick Taylor and John Rogers (story by Roderick Taylor)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Colin Farrell (Jesse James), Scott Caan (Cole Younger), Ali Larter (Zee Mimms), Timothy Dalton (Allan Pinkerton), Gabriel Macht (Frank James), Will McCormack (Bob Younger), Gregory Smith (Jim Younger), Kathy Bates (Ma James), Nathaniel Arcand (Comanche Tom), Craig Erickson (Deputy), Ty O'Neal (Clell Miller), Ronny Cox (Doc Mimms)
Most of the would-be young movie stars donning cowboy hats and six-shooters in American Outlaws were probably barely in their teen years when Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and Lou Diamond Phillips did the same thing 13 years ago in Young Guns (1988). And, while Young Guns was hardly a masterpiece of the Western genre, at least it had the integrity to maintain some semblance of notoriety around its protagonist, the charming but psychotic William H. Bonny, better known as Billy the Kid.
The same cannot be said for American Outlaws' treatment of another famed 19th-century American criminal, Jesse James. As played by Colin Farrell, who effortlessly dominated the screen last year in Joel Schumacher's gritty military boot-camp drama Tigerland, Jesse James is just a nice guy. He's polite, well-mannered, and charming—people actually enjoy being robbed by him. Farrell creases his thick eyebrows from time to time in a look of menace, and every once in a while his grin borders on something unseemly, but in the end it's always because nice-guy Jesse James is being pushed too far. He just wants to get married and farm, but the mean ol' railroad tycoons, backed by the soulless bureaucracy of the U.S. government, keeps treading on his dreams.
It is this goody-goody approach to the Western that is so off-putting, especially when the truly great Westerns—John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), to name a few—have been the ones that dared to humanize violent men without papering over the essential fact that they were violent. That inherent human paradox is what makes those films so engaging and memorable—they were daring, which is the last word one might use to describeAmerican Outlaws. Rather, prefabricated, commodified, and safe come immediately to mind.
After all, rather than risk any effort at complexity, we are simply asked to believe that Jesse James and his gang were a bunch of noble, warm-and-fuzzy do-gooders standing up for the little guy who couldn't stand up for himself. While it is true that the historical Jesse James was viewed in Robin Hood terms by many Missouri settlers, the screenplay by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers is too awkward and earnest in its attempt to soften the image of gun-slinging bank robbers. There's not a hint of danger anywhere in the movie; it's all so neat and clean and noble that it doesn't even earn its dubious PG-13 rating.
Director Les Mayfield, who previously helmed such movies as Disney's Flubber (1997) and the Martin Lawrence vehicle Blue Streak (1999), tries to inject the movie with humor, some of which almost works. There is an easy, enjoyable banter among the young outlaws, who also include Jesse's well-read, sharpshooter brother Frank James (Gabriel Macht) and the gang's co-leader and sometimes rival Cole Younger (Scott Caan). Frank gets some of the movie's best lines (and he also gets to quote Shakespeare), although much of his best dialogue is almost lost in the blandness that surrounds it.
For good measure, there is some romance included in the form of Zee (Ali Larter), the beautiful daughter of a local doctor who catches Jesse's eye; unfortunately, the heat generated between the two of them never progresses beyond lukewarm, even when they're frolicking in the ocean off the coast of Florida. The bad guys aren't much more enthralling, as they are little more than yet another version of the evils of capitalism personified as grouchy old white men. Timothy Dalton does managed to cut a fairly striking figure as Allan Pinkerton, the gentleman bounty hunter assigned to track down and stop the James-Younger gang's exploits.
Yet, the whole movie sags because it never pushes any limits. It has the self-imposed constraints of something made for TV; not even Russel Boyd's rugged cinematography breaks from the mold. At one point, Zee is reading out loud to Jesse from a salacious dime novel about Jesse's supposed exploits, and Jesse encourages her not to believe everything she reads. Too bad, because if a movie had been made from that dime novel, it probably would have been more exciting and genuine than the warm-hearted revisionist pap dished out in American Outlaws.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick