Film Reviews


By • Aug 17th, 2001 •

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AMERICAN OUTLAWS wanted to take the mythic legend of Jesse James and The James Gang, update it, and make it a “rock and roll band” of outlaws – according to the press notes. It fails because of a weak screenplay by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers and leaden, lazy direction by Les Mayfield.

It’s damn hard to do a good Western. AMERICAN OUTLAWS proves it. The Civil War has just ended and young Jesse and his older brother Frank James (Colin Farrell and Gabriel Macht) come home to Liberty, Missouri after four hard years at the front lines. They’ve been fighting along with their cousins, the brothers Cole and Bob Younger (Scott Caan and Will McCormack). The film opens at their last confrontation with the enemy. Jesse is the star shooter. He back flips his way through the gun smoke – with two hands firing pistols, no less.

They return to find that the Rock Island Railroad, led by the powerful Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin), is forcing farmers to sell their homes at low prices. If they don’t want to sell, there’s Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) and his infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency to provide the manpower to enforce drastic incentives to sell. When Ma James (Kathy Bates – needing a weekend paycheck?) refuses to sell her home to the railroad, it mysteriously burns to the ground. She dies in the explosion. Jesse, Frank, Cole, and Bob, together with several other young men who lost homes, form the James-Younger Gang. They are hellbent on punishing the railroad for the carnage by robbing banks holding railroad money.

The Gang goes throughout the West like a bunch of squabbling adolescents. Haven’t we seen this a thousand times? Cole is the hot head, Frank the serious one, Bob is the idiot (telegraphed by his cowpoke hat and stupid facial expression), Jim Younger (Gregory Smith) is the young brother tagging along. Considering the director virtually ignores Farrell, his star presence comes through anyhow. Could it have been that there actually wasn’t an interesting character in this Gang? The screenwriters must have written this solely because they liked horses. I still don’t know anything about The James Gang or why they got so famous. Jesse and Frank James – the blandest folk heroes in American history!

If you’re like me, you dread any movie with Scott Caan in it – and here he gets second billing. Caan has yet to learn the art of acting still and thinking through a performance. Thank goodness his onscreen time here was either forcibly subdued or edited out. Irish actor Colin Farrell has real charisma, but it’s wasted in this. The director just doesn’t know how to show him off (and his character) in an intriguing way. All I can say about Ali Larter (as Jesse’s love interest Zee) is – if she just wandered in from LEGALLY BLONDE and threw on a petticoat – it shows.

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