About as historically accurate as rock music playing during the medieval times of 2001's "A Knight's Tale," "American Outlaws" is a youth-targeted western that claims to tell the story of Jessie James, one of the world's most famous bank robbers. While having some fun with history and stretching the truth can sometimes be an asset (as it was in "A Knight's Tale"), "American Outlaws" is lazy storytelling at its worst, so disposable that it is likely to be forgotten before it even reaches the end.
When Ma James (Kathy Bates) is killed by railroad businessman Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) and his motley crew of bad guys following a land dispute, brothers Jessie (Colin Farrell) and Frank (Gabriel Macht) round up their friends, including the loyal Cole Younger (Scott Caan), to seek revenge on Pinkerton. Going about it by robbing all of the nearby banks whose money is to go into the construction of the railroad, the James-Younger gang becomes widely renowned as the first successful daytime bank robbers.
While there are moments of humor in "American Outlaws," gracelessly directed by Les Mayfield (the infinite 1997 classic, "Flubber"), far too much of the film comes off as unintentionally funny when it should be serious. At one point, a character even excuses themself by announcing, "I'm gonna go cry now." As for the central story, it cannot be bought for a second. Supposedly about Jessie James finally getting the courage to stand up for what he believes in after he loses his beloved mother from senseless violence, the late Ma James is not mentioned once after her death, and when any of the other characters die, their comrades mourn them for about a split second before cheerfully moving onto the next scene. The movie is exploitative nonsense that has no respect for its character, and only one thing on its mind: the next major plot point.
Acclaimed as "the next big thing," Colin Farrell (2000's "Tigerland") has a striking presence that allows him to carry himself with an unmistakable confidence, but that is all he has to offer. Farrell may have further future opportunities to do respectable work, but this isn't one of those. Ali Larter (2001's "Legally Blonde") costars as Zee Mimms, Jessie's free-thinking true love, and equips herself about as well as could be expected, but she seems more sophisticated and intelligent than the limited characteristics that her role provides. Everyone else in the cast is merely window-dressing, with poor Kathy Bates (also in this week's "Rat Race") sticking out like a sore thumb as religious fanatic Ma James.
"American Outlaws" is simply not good filmmaking on any level. Rarely in theatrical releases is the editing so sloppy and disjointed as it is here, with scene changes particularly abrupt and jarring. Furthermore, the characters are blank slates whose emotions come from the requirements of the screenplay, rather than from true human feeling. Action sequences filled with explosions sporadically pop up, attempting to revive whatever vitality there is left in such a throwaway production, but to no avail. If "American Outlaws" is a sign of what the rarely-seen western genre has become nowadays, maybe it should be laid to rest for good.
©2001 by Dustin Putman