by Chris Wood
There ought to be a law against it!
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In the latter days of the Civil War, Jesse (Collin Farrell) and Frank James (Gabriel Macht) were fighting off the Yanks’ looming numbers and Gatlin Guns with Frank’s accurate rifle, and Jesse’s kamikaze approach of riding his horse into the Union masses and gunning down dozens of soldiers. Apparently, the North had a problem with hitting one moving target, but managed to pick off other Rebel soldiers who were hiding behind trees or wagons. Go figure.
And so begins the very poor telling of one of the most famous outlaws in American history, who robbed banks, married his cousin (is that legal?), Zee Mimms (Ali Larter), and killed more men than heart disease.
In comparing the facts with the fiction, the movie’s storyline does follow the general history of Jesse James, but the foreshadowing is blatantly obvious, and the acting is so very fake that Jesse himself is probably aiming, like the South, to rise again and rob the WB Studios of the master copy of this atrocity.
After the war, the James brothers and the Younger brothers return to Liberty, Missouri to work on their farmland planting corn. Jesse, though, has additional plans with the town doctor’s daughter — and his cousin — Zee, to whom he tries to write Shakespearean poetry under his brother’s tutelage. But soon, these peace loving folk are threatened by the Rock Island Railroad, with Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) looking to buy up their land, which, of course, is met with James and Younger resistance.
Cole Younger (Scott Caan), after killing two of the Pinkerton Detectives, is set to hang until Jesse and the boys come into town a whoopin’ and a hollerin’, cutting Cole free and escaping from Pinkerton, like Bo and Luke Duke from Roscoe P. Coltraine, minus the General Lee.
Then it gets real personal when the railroad tycoons blow up the James’ house with Ma James (Kathy Bates) still inside. She stumbles out and her two sons almost shed a tear, but then are joking around like nothing happened the very next day. How touching.
Now the James-Younger gang is formed, and they go off to rob the banks that hold Rock Island Railroad money. Not forgetting to say “have a good day”, to the teller before leaving, Jesse and his gang wage war against the American government and the railroad.
With the popularity of the gang growing, Cole starts to get jealous of Jesse getting all the attention, and Jim Younger (Gregory Smith) is upset that he doesn’t have a menacing nickname. Meanwhile, Pinkerton is plotting and learning the gang’s routes, telling the railroad, “It’s going to be a long winter,” in a half Scottish/half English accent, and dressing like Sherlock Holmes. How tacky.
Another fake touching moment is when the youngest Younger, Bob, (Will McCormack) is shot and dying. Again, his loss is shaken off like prairie dirt from a pair of boots. McCormick, who was shot and killed in The Patriot has yet to make it through a movie without dying. (However, in the former case, it was a good move).
There are so many holes in this story that it’s like wearing a mesh shirt, and the viewer’s biggest concern should be staying awake, finding the nearest exit, or covering their face with the popcorn tub so no one will see them.
It can’t even be said that this movie takes up where the bubble-gum teen westerns like Young Guns and The Newton Boys left off. They were all poor, but American Outlaws has sunk to a new low.
It’s unfortunate, because, in an historical sense, the saga of Jesse James, which has been told on film several times before, is a very worthy topic. Like Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, a Western can be very interesting if the right elements are present.
The Long and the short: Damnation!
Chris Wood is not a syndicated film critic, but he plays one on TV.
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