|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Like Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers and Tarzan, Jesse James has
long since entered the pantheon of the mythic. There are multiple versions
of his life story in print and on celluloid. Indeed, on screen he has been
portrayed by actors as diverse as the outlaw's own son Jesse James Jr.
in 1921's UNDER THE BLACK FLAG, Tyrone Power (JESSE JAMES 1939),
George Reeves (THE KANSAN 1943), Macdonald Carey (THE GREAT
MISSOURI RAID 1951), Christopher Jones (the 1965 TV series THE
LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES), Robert Duvall (THE GREAT NORTHFIELD,
MINNESOTA RAID 1972), James Keach (THE LONG RIDERS) and Rob Lowe
(FRANK AND JESSE 1994). Joining this diverse group is Irish actor and rising
star Colin Farrell who headlines the agreeably entertaining
Some of my fellow critics have slammed this movie because
screenwriters Roderick Taylor and John Rogers played fast and loose with
the facts, but what film doesn't? AMERICAN OUTLAWS did not position
itself as the definitive biopic of Jesse James. Unlike say, THE LONG RIDERS
which Walter Hill meticulously staged or THE GREAT NORTHFIELD,
MINNESOTA RAID which Philip Kaufman clearly intended as a revisionist
take on the legend, director Les Mayfield here seems merely out to make
an entertainment. And entertaining it is. The paying audience with which
I saw the film clearly enjoyed it; laughing at the obvious comic moments,
getting caught up in the romance and the action sequences.
From the introductory sequences set during the Civil War, the main
characters are established. Frank James (Gabriel Macht) is the observer
and the peacemaker. Cole Younger (Scott Caan) is the hotheaded
strategician, while Jesse is the man of action. As a team, they are shown
defeating a platoon of Union soldiers just before the end of the war.
Upon returning to their farms in Missouri, they find their town of Liberty
occupied by soldiers and representatives of the Rock Island Railroad out
to swindle the locals of their land. It isn't long before the railroad
representatives, backed by the detective Alan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton)
and his men, ratchet up the violence, spurring the James and Younger
brothers into action.
Determined to hit back at the wealthy robber baron Thaddeus Rains
(Harris Yulin, who once played Jesse James in a TV movie), the
James-Younger gang begin to rob banks where the railroad money
is kept and sabotage the supply lines, disrupting the completion of the
track. The bank robbers wisely distributed some of their ill-gotten loot
among their neighbors as a means of protection from the authorities.
Along the way, Jesse finds the time to court Zerelda "Zee" Mimms
(Ali Larter) but their growing notoriety spurs internal dissension in the
If taken on its own terms, AMERICAN OUTLAWS is an enjoyable
popcorn flick. Farrell, who was impressive in TIGERLAND, once again
displays a charismatic screen presence. The camera clearly loves him and
he possesses the looks and talent to be a full-fledged star given the
chance. He is ably supported by a group of equally gifted actors, with
Macht making the most of his role as the educated Frank James and
Caan (son of James) proving that talent may be genetic. Others in the
supporting cast worth noting are Will McCormack as Bob Younger,
Gregory Smith as Jim Younger and Ali Larter as the feisty Zee Mimms.
The veteran performers, including Kathy Bates as Ma James, Terry O'Quinn
as the railroad representative and Harris Yulin as the robber baron all
acquit themselves. Ironically, the only sour note seemed to be Dalton's
Pinkerton. Sporting a Scottish burr, he seemed to be doing a poor imitation
of Sean Connery.
Instead of treating it as a serious work of art, one should look at
AMERICAN OUTLAWS as an old-fashioned B Western and one won't
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 94 mins.