Director: Les Mayfield
Cast: Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Gabriel Macht, Gregory Smith, Harris Yulin, Will McCormack, Kathy Bates, Timothy Dalton
MPAA Rating: (for western violence)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 8/17/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
At its best, American Outlaws is absurd; at its worst, it’s tedious and laughable. While watching it, you get the feeling that the people behind it just thought that it’d be fun to make a Western on their downtime. It’s plot is pieced together from every Western element in the book, and the characters are famous which apparently excuses any need for development. There’s a sense of conflict between two approaches to the movie—either it’s a serious Western or a mindless Western actioneer with modern sensibilities. The movie goes mostly for the latter, but the setup and many plot points are based in the former. When it begins to play around and alter its approach on a whim, it turns sour.
Instead of actually developing any kind of efficient story, the movie takes the legend of Jesse (Colin Farrell) and Frank James (Gabriel Macht) and dispels whatever mystique was left in their tale. Immediately after the James brothers return home from the Civil War as heroes, they learn that a railroad company is attempting to extort or steal the local farmers of their land. When the company comes knocking on the James’ door, however, they have no chance to convince them before guns are drawn and threats are made. When Cole Younger (Scott Caan), a fellow eventual outlaw, kills a few railroad agents and is sentenced to hang, the gang saves him. Obviously not happy with this turn of events, the railroad begins blowing up farmhouses, including the James’. Their mother (Kathy Bates) conveniently survives the explosion slightly charred for just enough time to give a death scene. Such action calls for immediate revenge, and the gang gets back together to come up with a plan. Jesse’s suggestion: "We’re going to do what we did in the war." Apparently, no one had the heart to ask, "Lose?" So they do the next best thing—rob the railroad of their money.
The movie takes its exposition very seriously. We not only get the fear of the railroad company, but we also get discontent with the government—two villains for the price of one. Eventually, though, the characters forget the reason behind the robberies, and they become more concerned with their fame than anything else. This leads to an obvious problem because it’s impossible for any fun to arise from the situation, and when the movie attempts such entertainment, it’s with the setup in the background. There’s also a love interest established for Jesse waiting at home. She’s played by Ali Larter and is essentially forgotten until she’s needed for Jesse to change his ways. And there’s a token villain played by Timothy Dalton. Apparently, he has finally become fed up with comparisons of his James Bond to Sean Connery’s, so for this role, he puts on his best (or worst, depending on your perspective) Connery impersonation.
The movie is obviously aiming for a younger audience. The main actors are all fresh-faced (i.e., interchangeable and unknown), and none of them are actually convincing as Western heroes. The score is obnoxiously anachronistic. The dialogue is dumbed down as far as it will go, and the plot is literally thrown together. There’s one robbery after another, followed by a scene of the railroad tycoons fuming over their losses. Then the gang either celebrates or fights but either way forgets why they’re doing all of this in the first place.
There are only two scenes where the movie actually achieves the sort of spirit it’s going for. The first, involving a failed robbery, takes place shortly after the halfway mark, and the second, a train shoot-out, happens at the very end. These sequences have a kind of playful absurdity. The rest of the movie wishes it had such luck.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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