Thursday, August 16, 2001
Probably the best way to describe the manner in which "American Outlaws" approaches the story of Clay County, Mo.-native Jesse James is by recalling the chilling pronouncement that comes at the end of John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence." Carleton Young flatly declares, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This remark begs the question: What if the filmmakers can't even get the legend right?
Director Les Mayfield is best know for helming "Flubber" and "Blue Streak," so it's not surprising that he takes a much lighter tone than most previous films on the subject.
As imagined by screenwriters Roderick Taylor ("Star Chamber") and John Rogers ("Rush Hour 2"), Jesse (Irishman Colin Farrell from "Tigerland") and his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) return to Liberty, Mo., from fighting as partisan raiders in the Civil War, only to discover that the home they once knew is now being taken over by a greedy railroad magnate named Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin). The lads are not about to sell their property, so they end up starting a war with Rains. Because Rains has the fearsome Allan Pinkerton (former James Bond Timothy Dalton) on his side, Jesse, Frank, and their cousin Cole Younger (Scott Caan) decide to hit Rains by attacking the banks that support his enterprises.
As anyone who has read a history book (or at least seen a couple of films) can probably guess, Jesse quickly gains a Robin Hood-like reputation for sharing his booty with the oppressed.
Of course, history paints a much darker picture. The James-Younger gang may not have been quite so generous, coming to fame because they were a scary lot. (They had the audacity to rob the box office at a fair in Kansas City despite the fact that it had attracted a reported crowd of 10,000, and Frank and Jesse both had been part of William Quantrill's gang, infamous for burning Lawrence.) The bandits in this flick appear as if they might have difficulty pilfering a baby's sweets. Farrell's approach to America's most famous outlaw is about as wrong-headed as John Wayne's attempt at portraying Genghis Kahn in "The Conqueror." Despite a stubbly beard, Farrell's clean-cut handsomeness is downright antiseptic. This "minty-freshness" makes the scenes when he wields a pistol or gets into brawls seem laughably unconvincing. If one is actually going to make a hero of Jesse James, it would be best to at least make him someone who might inspire a little bit of fear.
The cornball dialog, which sounds like it was left over from "Pearl Harbor," doesn't help. When the gang attacks a train carrying Rains and Pinkerton, someone yells, "What the hell was that?" Pinkerton knowingly replies, "Vengeance." Likewise, much of the action is tepid and unimaginative. There's the oft-repeated sequence where a cornered desperado comes crashing through a huge front window. "American Outlaws" lacks the gore of say "The Wild Bunch" or even of the infinitely superior James-Younger gang movie "The Long Riders," but it also lacks the cathartic rush such movies offered.
Not much else in this film works. As Jesse's beloved Zee Mimms, Ali Larter ("Legally Blonde") has an arboreal stiffness and an irritatingly twangy voice that makes the love scenes seem phonier than the robberies. Kathy Bates also is saddled with an obnoxiously silly role as the James boys' fanatically religious mother. Only Dalton, who seems to have more fun portraying villains than 007, emerges from this mess with pride intact. There's a humor and menace in his portrayal that's sadly missing from the rest of the flick.
There aren't many westerns in theaters these days, and "American Outlaws" and its lame "Young Guns" approach is a fair explanation of the scarcity. It makes a viewer feel like an investor in one of the banks Jesse hit.