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Another shot at the Jesse James legend

[Photo: Warner Bros]
Will McCormack, Gregory Smith, Colin Farrell, Scott Caan and Gabriel Macht try their hand at a Western in American Outlaws.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 16, 2001

American Outlaws doesn't aim for the true story, but even as summer entertainment, it isn't quite on the mark.

There are few historical characters with as much pop culture staying power as Jesse James, the Confederate guerrilla turned bloodthirsty bandit. James' gang was responsible for murdering and maiming many innocent people in the course of multiple bank and train robberies after the Civil War.

During his short lifetime, he was painted as a complicated, well-intentioned hero by a controversial editor at the Kansas City Times.

The mythmaking began in earnest around the turn of the century. Since then, countless novels and non-fiction accounts have been written, not to mention songs. A rock band even adopted the name of the gang.

The outlaw, murdered in 1882, was first toasted on-screen with a 1908 silent film, and his real-life son appeared in two 1920s movies. Tyrone Power, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, James Keach (in 1980's excellent The Long Riders) and Rob Lowe have all played James.

Hollywood filmmakers seldom let facts or credibility get in the way of a good story, and the summer Western American Outlaws is no exception. Jesse (Irish-born Colin Farrell of last year's Tigerland) got married to Zee (Ali Larter), his first cousin, in Missouri, not in Key West. The showdown on the beach, with the newly married couple frolicking in the water as Pinkerton detectives gather on the shore, makes an entertaining scene, though.

In reality, there was no happily ever after for the couple: James, not a skilled shooter, was killed at home by a member of his gang, reportedly over reward money, only eight years after the nuptials. And is there any evidence to support the idea that James had a series of personal encounters with Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton), head of the famed detective agency assigned to solve train robberies?

But, hey, "Bad is good again," according to the movie's marketing slogan. And perhaps it's just quibbling to suggest that Jesse and his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht), a Shakespeare-spouting Renaissance man in this retelling, along with Younger brothers Cole (Scott Caan), Jim (Gregory Smith) and Bob (Will McCormack), were anything other than a bunch of fun-loving, wisecracking pretty boys, up to nothing more than stealing from a mean railroad baron (Harris Yulin, practically hissing) and giving back to their community.

The actors went to "cowboy camp" in Texas to prepare for their roles, and the preparation paid off, as this year's group of big-screen young guns looks reasonably comfortable riding horses, bravely racing into dangerous situations with guns blazing, and, on occasion, taking bullets. The Lone Star State visuals work, too, with vintage wagons and stagecoaches, along with hundreds of horses and cattle filling the frame.

In this version of the story, the James gang is established as a way of avenging the death of dear old Gospel-spouting Ma James, played by the reliable Kathy Bates. Her performance is funny and sassy, albeit brief. (The real scoop: Mom lived to cash in on her famous son's death by buying old guns and selling them as the icon's own.)

The James and Younger siblings are soon joined by a handful of others sympathetic to the cause, thwarting the government's attempt to do away with personal property rights in the name of progress -- i.e., the extension of a railroad line. Shootouts and downtime camaraderie follow, and the gang even frees Jesse from a speeding prison train.

As entertainment, it's passable if hardly compelling. The movie Western may yet rise again, but American Outlaws won't be much help.

American Outlaws

  • Grade: C
  • Director: Les Mayfield
  • Cast: Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Gabriel Macht, Harris Yulin, Kathy Bates, Timothy Dalton.
  • Screenplay: Roderick Taylor and John Rogers
  • Rating: PG-13; violence
  • Running time: 93 mins.

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