A scene from 'American Outlaws'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 95 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, August 17, 2001
Directed by Les Mayfield

Starring Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Timothy Dalton, Gabriel Macht, Will McCormack, Gregory Smith, Kathy Bates, Nathaniel Arcand, Ronny Cox, Harris Yulin, Terry O'Quinn


Unambitious Westerns like this one always play the same on TV as in the theater. Only great Westerns lose something in the translation.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 12.11.2001


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Sloppy, lethargic storytelling takes the fun out of fantasy Jesse James adventure for the MTV set

By Rob Blackwelder

Fictionalizing and romanticizing the exploits of Old West outlaws has been a pastime of the entertainment industry since the day the James Gang robbed its first bank in 1866. From the pulpy serialized dime publications of the Old West itself to the rock'n'roll, brat pack Billy the Kid flick "Young Guns," horseback bandits have made for popular folk heroes.

It's a simple formula: Invent some noble cause that the outlaws are fighting for so they can be passed off as gallant, cast up-and-coming pretty boy actors in the leads, cast surly types as the law (and dress them in black), toss in a few gunfights riddled with hitchin' post clichés and a pretty lass to kiss just before the credits roll -- and voila! Instant Western.

"American Outlaws" is the slick Generation Y model from this blueprint, starring scruffy baby-face Colin Farrell ("Tigerland") as a Jesse James who robs banks to hurt Yankee railroad barons that done killed his maw when she wouldn't sell the family farm so they could lay down tracks.

Riding with him are Scott Caan as publicity-jealous gang member Cole Younger, Gabriel Macht as a Shakespeare-quoting Frank James, and a handful of others. Waiting at home is Ali Larter ("Legally Blonde") as a sassy-sweet love interest, who can hold her own against the boys and doesn't ride sidesaddle. And twisting his moustache with glowering glee is Timothy Dalton (the former James Bond) as the legendary Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Secret Service and ruthless lawman extraordinare, now a hired gun for the railroad.

Directed in paint-by-numbers fashion by Les Mayfield ("Blue Streak"), "American Outlaws" has an undeniable spark of charm and a few snappy lines of dialogue. But when it comes to spinning a good yarn, the picture is a mess.

Supposedly hot on James' trail, Pinkerton actually spends the bulk of the movie chewing scenery in the office of greedy train tycoon Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin), pointing at little flags stuck in a map and imparting his never-ending strategy to catch our heroes. Meanwhile, Mayfield shows us an almost stock-footage montage of bank hold-ups and brothel scenes as the gang gains their reputation. There's so little pursuit by the law in this movie that at one point Frank James says "I never thought that posse was going to give up!" -- and we've never even seen a posse.

That kind of sloppy, lethargic storytelling is par for the course in "American Outlaws," which can't even get through a shootout without employing not only the requisite trick-shooting Western conventions (which one expects -- even anticipates), but a slew of truly tiresome action flick proclivities to boot. You'd think an old-timey character as charismatic as Jesse James would have more astute moves than head-butting bad guys and firing his six-shooters while rolling across a floor. If that's not the sign of a lame gunfight, I don't know what is.

This movie had the potential to be a bit of harmless, forgettable, dumb-grin fun -- and to be fair, most of the MTV-reared target audience may still see it that way. But Mayfield's narrative techniques are just so fundamentally flawed, choppy and uncreative that "American Outlaws" plays like a ESPN highlights reel and not like a movie at all.

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