Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:40 - Released 8/17/01

The impression made by Les Mayfield's wild west melodrama American Outlaws on the average moviegoer may depend on several factors. If you like pretty scenery and pretty people, you've never seen a western before, and you've never heard of Jesse James, you might think it's great. But it's so full of trite stereotypes and western clichés, and so devoid of good acting, it's hard to sit through without breaking out in derisive laughter. Written by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers, this film attempts to pay homage to the James/Younger gang and romanticize their train-robbing exploits during the latter 19th century, but it's so derivative, it's more like a self-consciously serious version of Blazing Saddles without the Blacks and Jews.

After a Civil War battle scene (which turns out to be the most original, if not believable, scene of the movie) lets us know of their amazing skill as marksmen and the scope of their incorrigibly lovable scampy behavior, the players who will make up the James/Younger gang head home to the cornfields of Missouri. Brothers Jesse and Frank James (Colin Farrell, Gabriel Macht) and their cousins, Cole and Bob Younger (Scott Caan, Will McCormack), return just in time to discover that the nasty and powerful owner of the Rock Northern Railroad, Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin), is using strongarm tactics to take over the town. After his primary agents [executive toady Rollin Parker (Terry O'Quinn) and moustache-curling detective Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton, doing his best Sean Connery impression)] burn down the James' home with their deeply religious mother (Kathy Bates) in it, Jesse decides to declare all-out war against Rains and his railroad. This scene is a particularly excellent indicator of the film's melodramatic style, when Bates, her face blackened by the burns, utters the dying words, "The dear Lord's a bit shorter than I reckoned." Ggggaaaak. Excuse me.

Joined by a few other members and supported by Jesse's too-hot-for-the-period girlfriend Zee (Ali Larter), the boys rob Rock Nothern trains, rob banks where the railroad's money is stored, blow up various sections of track, and give to local charities. This causes their approval rating to soar among the locals while Pinkerton snarls menacingly about getting inside the mind of his brilliant but devious foe. Meanwhile we are treated to a subplot involving the gang's constant bickering about who's in charge and whose pictures look best in the "Wanted" posters.

Although it is nicely filmed, director Mayfield (whose eclectic list of credits includes kids' fantasy Flubber and zany cop comedy Blue Streak) does not hesitate to pack his movie with every western trick in the book, from breakaway furniture to collapsing water towers to main street gunfights where bullets zing back and forth across the dusty roadway and watering troughs spring leaks. It is a veritable showcase of western clichés, both textual and cinematic, with ample amounts of cheesy sentiment and the occasional groan-inducing joke thrown in. The acting is generally styleless (especially in the case of Farrell) or overwrought (Dalton), with the possible exception of Gabriel Macht, who imbues elder brother Frank James with an easygoing charm, but up against his affected fellow cast members, he's almost out of place. Overall, Mayfield's first attempt at the western looks good but shoots itself in the foot. **½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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