American Outlaws opens on horses, appropriately. Not many westerns are made anymore and it’s good to open strong on the ultimate icon of the American western movie.
Rebel Robin Hood
PG-13 for "western" violence
Turns out the horses are riding into an ambush. The Union army is waiting for a band of Rebel raiders, which includes Jesse and Frank James (Colin Farrell and Gabriel Macht). The James brothers find themselves behind a wagon loaded with timber, needing to shoot their way out. This heroic action scene introduces the characters and their pertinent personalities — Jesse is bold and headstrong, Frank is calculating and strategic.
The raiders survive the battle, but before long the war ends, and they go home to suffer the indignities of having lost. Northern carpetbaggers move in to occupy their town, and what’s worse, the railroads are buying up land for not enough money, using eminent domain to push the Southern upstarts off their land.
The James brothers and their cousins, the Youngers, are muscled out of their homes, so Jesse and a gang of eight form a mercenary band to rob banks, not for the money, but to harry the enemy – in this case, the banks and railroads. “This isn’t a feud, it’s a war,” says Jesse, trying to impart a noble sense of righteousness into his soon-to-be life of crime.
American Outlaws paints Jesse and his gang as Robin Hood and his merry men, stealing from rich robber barons and giving to the poor farmers. It’s an idea that might sell with the antiglobalization crowd, and it does strike a chord, but the movie doesn’t play up that angle very much. American Outlaws is more interested in action and explosions. That’s fun too, but it makes the other motive seem shallow and insincere.
Shallowness and insincerity are not this movie’s primary shortcomings. What this movie lacks is a strong personality. Jesse is supposed to be the charismatic one, but Farrell doesn’t really lead the cast. If anyone does, it’s Macht as the levelheaded Frank James, and levelheaded shouldn’t be the lead in an action movie.
The film also seems cheap. Not film-student cheap, but corner-cutting cheap. Why pay for amazing stuntwork when you can have the editor hack together some closeups? Why choreograph a balletic gunfight like John Woo when you can just overwhelm the soundtrack with gunshots? Why rewrite dialogue or invest in historical accuracy when you can appeal to a lower-minded target audience with explosions and young hunks?
American Outlaws includes scenes that would make very good use of these luxuries, but it feels like deadline pressures and budgetary constraints forced a lot of compromises. The length of the movie seems to bear me out. Outlaws is over in a quick 95 minutes, as if the producers didn’t want to risk a longer film. “Get out while you’re ahead,” seems to be the reasoning. And that’s probably not a bad strategy for a western with no A-list stars.
Be All That You Can Be
So maybe American Outlaws deserves a higher rating. It’s not altogether bad. There are three or four action scenes that work very well, including the opening ambush and a stunt sequence on a train that Jackie Chan could have done wonders with.
Unfortunately, Outlaws is just not all it could be. In a season with so many other good, watchable movies, you might as well save this ‘til you’ve seen everything else.