American OutlawsReviewed by: Douglas Downs
1 hr. 34 min.
Year of Release:
August 17, 2001
A really good western is very hard to find. My all-time favorite (which will be re-released on video Sept. 15th of 2001) is “The Westerner”. It’s hard to beat Gary Cooper as Cole Hardin and Walter Brennan as “Judge” Roy Bean in this 1940’s William Wyler Classic. The cinematographer Greg Toland (“Citizen Kane”, “Wuthering Heights”) brought a compositional artistry that is almost unparalleled. But those classic days of westerns are almost gone. We have watched Hollywood try with more misses than hits. I groaned over the misfires of “Shanghai Noon” and “Wild, Wild West.” One of my favorite recent videos is “Young Indiana Jones and the Hollywood Follies.” The episode demonstrates the film direction of John Ford and chronicles how many of the early westerns were made.
“American Outlaws” isn’t bad for a B-movie western. It is not without some flaws that would spoil it for parents of younger children. The film is a reimagining of the Jesse James legend. Now if you are a history buff (I am), you will notice many historical flaws (almost more than in “Pearl Harbor”). Jesse Woodson James was the son of a Baptist minister. He never fought in the Civil War. He did ride with William Quantrill’s Guerillas, also known as Quantrill’s Raiders. They raided many Northern towns, mostly for profit. In 1873 Jesse held up his first train, the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, near Adair, Iowa. His mother Zerelda (Mamaw) James lost her arm during a bombing, but not her life. I could go on, but what about this movie?
Jesse James and his gang ride again while playing loose with historical facts. Jesse (Colin Farrell), his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) and his cousins Cole Younger (Scott Caan) and Jim Younger (Gregory Smith) have just returned home from the Civil War. They no sooner get back to the farm near Liberty, MO to find that railroad tycoon Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin) and his railroad are a-comin’ through! The railroad is trying to buy up many local farms. Ma James (Kathy Bates) ain’t sellin’! The Good Lord told her not to! Rains then hires a group of men to blow up the farms. This causes our local heroes to take revenge. Especially (in grand B-fashion), Ma has a very dramatic death. Jesse, Frank, and the Youngers decide to stop the railroad by robbing banks and blowing up tracks (works every time). They give some of the money (in Robin Hood fashion) to the farmers who help them hide, and to the churches (God bless ’em).
Raines hires the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency to track the James-Younger gang down. Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) is very methodical in his efforts to outwit Jesse. Jesse does have some time for love (this plot point is almost an afterthought--.oh, yeah—Jesse needs a girlfriend). He has his heart set on Doc Mimms daughter Zee (Ali Larter).
“American Outlaws” has many weaknesses. You must keep reminding yourself it is a B-movie. Now, repeat after me “this is a B-movie”. The bullets never make it through thin pieces of wood to hurt our heroes (you know bullets only kill ugly bad guys in black). You can even out-shoot a Gatling gun in a B-movie!
The movie does have some serious flaws that are offensive: it’s got its share of cussin’, shootin’, and drinkin’. We watch a young teen consume alcohol and contemplate sleeping with a prostitute. These scenes are brief, but they are still there. Ma James sounds religious and might reflect the attitude of that time period, but we all know that God didn’t really hate Yankees. On a good note, there isn’t any sex (they’re too busy robbin’ banks, ’member?).
Many of the light humorous moments worked well with the plot. (I won’t spoil it for you.) My age recommendation would be 12 and up. It’s not the best movie you will have seen this summer, but it’s certainly not the worse either.