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When a Midwest town learns that a corrupt railroad baron has captured the deeds to their homesteads without their knowledge, a group of young ranchers join forces to take back what is rightfully theirs. In the course of their vendetta, they will become the object of the biggest manhunt in the history of the Old West and, as their fame grows, so will the legend of their leader, a young outlaw by the name of Jesse James. Written by
Find My Baby
Written by Moby (as Richard Hall)
Performed by Moby
Courtesy of V2 Records, Inc./Mute Ltd.
Features samples from the Bay Blue recording "Joe Lee's Rock"
Produced under license from Atlantic Recording Corp.
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The legend of Jesse James is one of those stories that people just never seem to get tired of. Every few years, we see a new cinematic version of the life of James, a former Confederate raider who became a folk hero after he turned to banditry following the war. The latest iteration of the story is "American Outlaws", a red-blooded B-style shoot-'em-up that offers little in the way of historical accuracy and even less in the way of storytelling elegance, but does serve up plenty of action and lots of fun.
Jesse (hot Irish newcomer Colin Farrell) makes a name for himself on the battlefields of the Civil War as an unpredictable live wire willing to do anything to get the Yankees. After the war, he and his levelheaded sure-shot brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) return to their home in Liberty, Missouri, only to find the railroad coming through town. The big rail money, backed up by hard-skulled detective Allen Pinkerton (a glowering Timothy Dalton), wants to buy the James farm, but the boys aren't selling. They didn't shed their blood on the battlefields just to give their home over to a railroad. Soon, however, it's back to war when a bomb destroys their farmhouse and the only way to get revenge is to strap on your guns and ride. As they rob railroad payrolls and bedevil the authorities, Jesse, Frank, and their gang get something besides revenge: they become authentic American legends.
It's a story every schoolboy knows. Hell, Bobby Brady was a Jesse James aficionado. Still, it's been a while since we've had a telling of the story, and this one does a fairly good job of keeping us entertained. Les Mayfield is not the obvious choice to direct a western (his most notable previous film was "Encino Man" with Pauly Shore), but he actually does a decent job. He handles the action sequences with flair, particularly a crackerjack bank shootout and Jesse's escape from the rail baron's train. The film's period accoutrements are all present and accounted for, the costumes and guns appropriately impressive, the cinematography by Russell Boyd all vibrant browns and golds.
There are also some nice performances from the mostly young cast. Colin Farrell makes Jesse a likable, oddly sweet kid whose charm is just as deadly as his gun. Scott Caan matches him as the hotheaded Cole Younger (more on him later), and Gabriel Macht is a sensible and solid Frank, his performance the best thing in the film. Ali Larter is nice eye candy as Jesse's lady love, but the story really gives her nothing to do, and while Dalton growls impressively behind a grungy-looking beard, he doesn't really get the chance to do anything evil.
This is where "American Outlaws" starts shooting itself in the foot. There is no real sense of a concrete enemy for the boys to battle, a true and implacable adversary. Harris Yulin blusters and barks as the railroad baron, but he never truly emerges as a figure of loathing. As a result, the film's finale is unfocused and confusing. Pinkerton's final action in particular makes no sense to me at all. Is he just giving a cocky young kid the benefit of the doubt? Is he doing it because Jesse's wife is hot? I don't get it.
"American Outlaws" is a frustrating film in some ways because everything you like is balanced by something that rubs you the wrong way. A great Civil War battle opening is marred by the sparseness of the Union ranks (Mayfield should have called for more extras that day). An appropriately Coplandesque score by Trevor Rabin is almost wholly sabotaged by the inclusion of a Moby song (MOBY!) at both the beginning and the end of the film. It almost makes you want to grab a six-gun yourself and blaze away at the troublemakers, leaving behind only those who are contributing admirably to the enterprise.
Still, I've come to expect the good with the bad this summer, and "American Outlaws" joins "Tomb Raider" and "The Mummy Returns" as a piece of escapism that is better than the critics' comments indicate, but not as good as it probably should be. Still, with these flouncy dull MTV teen comedies STILL dominating the marketplace, it's nice to see someone delivering a good old fashioned genre piece. In these parlous cinematic times, even a problematic western is better than no western at all.
I close with a bit of real history: after they stopped riding with the James boys, Cole Younger and his outlaws kept going, and one time even attempted to rob a farmhouse in their area. The woman of the house got the drop on them, though; she slammed a window on a gang member's hand, costing him two of his fingers. She survived to live a healthy long life, and have children and grandchildren of her own. One of those grandchildren was my grandmother. Someone should put THAT in a movie. It would make me happy.
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