American Outlaws (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Young Guns Part Deux

“You are one terrifying son of a bitch with those guns,” the notorious and shirtless outlaw Cole Younger tells his cousin, the notorious and shirtless outlaw Jesse James, in one of many shirtless scenes in American Outlaws.

The problem is, Jesse isn’t a terrifying son of a bitch. He’s only about 10 percent threatening in that cute, ain’t-I-a-bad-boy, check-out-my-perpetual-two-days’-growth-of-beard-stubble kind of way. Not that there’s anything wrong with some attractive young lads running around shirtless, waving their guns at one another, and playing cowboys and Indians in the Missourah dust. But that’s gotta be the effect you’re going for when you’re making a piece of pinup tripe like American Outlaws. If you’re not deliberately aiming for cheesy beefcake, and it happens anyway, then you’re in trouble.

Director Les Mayfield and screenwriters Roderick Taylor and John Rogers are in trouble.
No one seems to know what to do with this revisionist outlaw tale. Is it serious drama? Well, it repositions an infamous bank robber as a good boy who just wants to go home from the Civil War to his farm but is forced into a life of crime to right wrongs and enforce justice. Is it a parody of Westerns? Evidence: Ma James (Kathy Bates: Titanic, paying the rent) is a Jesus freak; Timothy Dalton, as a moustache- twirling baddie Allan Pinkerton (the crime-fighting legend; his descendents should sue) is here, proving that he is no longer an actor but is just hiring himself out as a lampoon of Snidely Whiplash; there’s an actual trusty Injun sidekick; turning the drunkard-through-the-saloon-window cliché on its ear, horses — horses — leap through windows from inside shops, where they were just browsing, I guess; and everybody count with me: 1) the noose goes around the neck, 2) “Any last words?” 3) the spit in the face, 4) the slap across the cheek in reply. Or is this just a throwaway action movie? Cuz, dear god, there’s a lotta shootin’ and racin’ away on horses and even, yup, stuff blowin’ up real good.

So, it’s a sorta Robin Hood/Patriot/Braveheart kinda thing, but unintentionally funny, and with casting done by Tiger Beat magazine.

Now, I will be the first to admit that Colin Farrell — who generated all that buzz in last year’s Tigerland — as Jesse James is not merely gorgeous but is perhaps the second coming of Mel Gibson. He looks great without his shirt, as we are given ample chance to see, but he also lights up the screen with wit, charm, and an abundance of screen presence even when he keeps his clothes on. Given the right opportunity, he probably could be a terrifying but irresistible son of a bitch and could inherit Gibson’s is-he-crazy-or-is-he-putting-it-on mantle.

But first he must get through the rough stage even the best and most famous of movie stars must go through, when they’re the only shining thing in a slew of bad, bad movies. Not only can the movie not make up its mind what it wants to be, but it’s full of death scenes that are downright laughable and plagued with asinine dialogue, like this line: “We’ll teach these podunks what happens when they challenge the righteousness of progress.” Credit to Harris Yulin (Rush Hour 2) for keeping a straight face while chewing that one out. He’s the railroad magnate who’ll do whatever he must to get the rights-of-way he needs to bring the iron horse through Jesse’s hometown, and by gum, Jesse and his pals — who together fought off Civil War reenactors in the beginning of the film — will teach him a thing or two. Cute boys on horses versus the alpha-male silverback corporate types? Gee, who do you think will win?

The last 10 minutes of the film are deliciously, preposterously pulpy, as if everyone finally figured out that you just can’t take this kind of thing seriously and at last was having some fun with it. If only the whole movie had been so devil-may-care.

Farrell’s not quite the only good thing about American Outlaws, though. It’s got a truly wonderful soundtrack, too — it’s sorta Celtic/Southern country rock/Mark Knofler, and it’s rousing and moving. I’d love to see the movie that goes with it.

share and enjoy