"American Outlaws" - a good-humored retelling of the Jesse James legend - is another of 2001's long string of movies that fall in between not-so-hot and not-so-bad. It is in the grand tradition of the cowboy Western. In other words, "American Outlaws" is completely unoriginal, but at least it steals from good films like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
After defeating more heavily armed Union bluecoats in a final skirmish of the Civil War, Quantrill's Raiders, a Confederate guerilla army, disband. The handsome James brothers and their cousins, the Younger brothers, head home to their Missouri Ozark farms. There, they find the Federal Army and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in league with a carpetbagging Northern railroad intent on stealing their land.
And besides, as Cole Younger points out, the war showed them that raiding and killing was a lot more exciting than plowing. So, off our heroes ride to wreak vengeance on the
Union's trains and banks, aided by the local farmers with whom they prudently share their loot.
High school boys will enjoy the bang-bang boom-boom action. Their dates will be all aquiver over the cute young desperadoes. As Jesse, dark-eyed Colin Farrell ("Tigerland") lives up to at least some of the hype that says he's
's Next Big Thing. As Cole Younger, curly-haired Scott Caan delivers a fine impression of his father, James Caan. Hollywood
Upper middle class parents probably won't mind taking their older kids to "American Outlaws." It's a mild PG-13, with only a few barnyard expletives. The scenes of Jesse courting his future wife Zerelda are quite innocent and rather charming.
On the other hand, if you live in a tough neighborhood where being a gun-totin' outlaw might strike your son as a promising career path, watch out. Much of America's culture war is fought between downscale conservative parents who rightly want a more moralistic society to help them raise their at-risk children versus upscale liberal parents who rightly assume that pop cultures' amoral examples probably won't ruin their expensively sheltered kids.
Grownups will find Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates' performance as the James boys' Jesus-loving Yankee-hating Ma to be terrific (as usual), but too brief. In contrast, Timothy Dalton (a former James Bond) has a potentially meaty role as Jesse's nemesis, the legendary Allen Pinkerton who ran Abraham Lincoln's spy service. The swashbuckling Shakespearean actor provides a formidable presence, until he opens his mouth. Then, the distinctly sub-Shakespearean dialogue leaves him merely chewing the scenery.
Although the moviemakers cheerfully admit that they filmed the romanticized legend rather than the facts, "American Outlaws" is remarkably close to honest about how much Jesse James' crime spree was motivated by his hatred of the victorious
Most historical movies these days feature implausible minority characters, such as the perplexing appearance of Morgan Freeman in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." In contrast, "American Outlaws" shows no blacks at all, even though the real-life James family owned four slaves. The presence of ex-slaves in the movie would have raised doubts about the purity of our heroes' Confederate cause. In fact, the James Gang boasts the only nonwhite character in the film, Comanche Tom, who, oddly enough, did indeed integrate the real-life band of brigands.
This kind of pro-Confederate costume drama was common until the Civil Rights era, when the slaves' point of view finally began to be considered. In the last few years, this trend has gone much farther as the great and the good have set about to demonize the Confederate Battle Flag and other symbols of white Southerners' pride in their rebel ancestors. "American Outlaws" might be betting that the growing Southern backlash will pay off at the box office.
Or, the filmmakers may have had to portray Jesse as a heroic Confederate freedom fighter because otherwise he would appear to be just a vicious crook. In reality, he was both. The best aspect of "American Outlaws" is that it's fairly perceptive about how murky is the line between guerilla and gangster.
The Sicilian Mafia, for example, probably grew out of patriotic underground resistance to French invaders. Further, our former friends in the Kosovo Liberation Army are today trying to dismantle our ally
in order to monopolize in a wider domain the venerable Albanian specialties of smuggling, fencing, and pimping. Perhaps if our State Department could have watched "American Outlaws" before deciding to go to war on behalf of the KLA "freedom fighters" in 1999, they wouldn't have been so cruelly disillusioned in 2001 when the KLA turned out to be just another James Gang. Macedonia