2001, PG-13, 95 min. Directed by Les Mayfield. Starring Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Timothy Dalton, Ali Larter, Will McCormack, Kathy Bates.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 17, 2001
“Bad is good again,” reads this tweener Western's marketing tagline. Nope, sorry gang, bad was never good, and American Outlaws is much, much worse. I'd like nothing more than to be able to relay that the film -- filmed around the Austin and Hill Country area last summer -- is a solid, rough 'n' ready Western in the grand Hollywood tradition (or even the grand Italian tradition), but sorry, pa, it just ain't so. Instead of true grit and gutshot black-hatters, director Les Mayfield has crafted what may well be the world's first Tommy Hilfiger Western, chock-a-block with fresh-faced up-and-comers sporting pearly whites so dazzling the reflected glare could bring down the entire Texas Air National Guard. The real source of American Outlaws' unceasing barrage of numbing mediocrity isn't the cast, though (Aussie lead Farrell as young Jesse James is riveting when he's actually given something interesting to do that doesn't involve shooting a hole in someone, which isn't often enough), it's writer Roderick Taylor's awful script, which takes the general lore of the James-Younger Gang and slickens it up with contemporary pop culture twang. Truly, those who do not remember Young Guns are condemned to remake it, but it's audiences who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfires like this one. Farrell plays hotshot Jesse James, Macht is the book-learned and taciturn Frank James, Caan is the bickering, jealous Cole Younger, and former Ford model and Maxim eye-candy Larter is Zee Mimms, Jesse's babe-in-waiting. When the Rock Western railroad threatens the James and Younger families' Missouri homesteads and then starts killing farm folks, the gang-to-be -- freshly arrived after aerating Yankee scalawags during the War of Northern Aggression -- fight back against weaselly rail boss Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin) by making sizable and unauthorized withdrawals from his payroll banks. Rains brings in Allen Pinkerton of the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency (Dalton, forever on the brink of threatening to overshadow the memory of Snidely Whiplash) to track the flighty bunch, but this only results in the dreaded Robin Hood effect, with Jesse and his allies robbing from the rich and giving to the neighborhood. “They gave 'em so much money they built a school,” O'Quinn's character whines at one point, to which Rains counters, “Then we'll burn it down!” Hearts and minds, gentleman, hearts and minds. Kernels of a great story lie scattered throughout the film, but the acidly asinine soil of Taylor's script never allows them to take root. In lieu of suspense, drama, or even a real romance, we get Farrell and Larter going at it grin-to-pout, each trying to outdo the other in the sexy looks department, while “Crazy” Bob Younger (McCormack) rustles up a big ol' mess of comic relief. Honestly, you just want to slap these outlaws and tell them to get on with the rough stuff, and stop trading good-natured locker-room jabs already. In some alternate, Western-friendly reality, James Arness is kicking some serious American Outlaw butt, and with any luck he's doing it not as sainted Sheriff Matt Dillon, but as The Thing From Another World, claws and all and damn the six-guns. Take that, you dirty dawgs.