NOW PLAYING: American Outlaws

Posted: Monday, August 27, 2001

American Outlaws should be titled Young Guns Redux. It's got the same fresh-to-Hollywood faces grafted onto the same gritty old west outlaws. It's got the same galloping guitar background music, and it's even got the same production company and producer in Stanley G. Robinson and Morgan Creek. Too bad when they were raiding the Young Guns vault they couldn't have stolen its compelling story, skillful acting, and at least passable writing.

This time around, instead of a glossy retelling of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, Robinson & Co. have chosen to update the story of Jesse James and his war with the railroad. After the civil war, Jesse and Frank James, along with Cole and Bob Younger, return to their hometown of Liberty, MO., only to find it occupied by hostile bluecoats, just itching to hang any rowdy rebels who dare to do more than hoot and holler. When the railroad comes to town trying to buy up farms, it boils our boys' blood, but when they start burning famers out who won't sell, it's time to take action. They form the James-Younger gang, and along with a few other outraged farmers, make war on the railroad. The railroad, however, has the famous Alan Pinkerton up their sleeve and it becomes a test of will between two charismatic gang leaders and their determined pursuer. That's the movie version of things, anyway.

Playing fast and loose with the facts is the modus operandi for many of these historical based action flicks. Do you think Billy the Kid really commanded an elite group of New Mexico regulators, handing out righteous justice at every turn? He was a nutcase, and probably ran with a group of other nutcases, shooting up the New Mexico territory and becoming, in a small way, involved in the Lincoln County range wars. The same goes for the oh-so-morally indignant James-Younger gang, who are played as 19th century Robin Hoods sparring merrily with the Sheriff of Pinkerton. The producers do manage to plug in a nugget of truth here and there. James' farm was indeed destroyed in an explosion, but not with quite the effects portrayed in the film. And while Frank James may have indeed been a pretty smart guy, it is doubtful he was the scholarly sage that the film makes him out to be. Also, the railroad, though run by a corrupt group of power elite, was not such a hated commodity to the people it came into contact with. To believe American Outlaws is to believe that no one but evil tycoons wanted a transportation and supply line from coast to coast; that the common man wanted nothing to do with it. Certainly they were some who disliked the railroad and the new age it ushered in, but the majority of people were in favor of progress. One story I heard told of the people of Ft. Worth, Texas actually meeting the railroad outside of town and building the last few miles of it themselves, to hurry it along.

The real problem with this movie, however, has nothing to do with it's occasional canyon-sized gaps in historical accuracy. That's just par for the course with this kind of film, and it's really no different than what we've been doing for thousands of years. Stretch the truth here, leave out a crucial bit of info there; it's all done for drama's sake. For example, did you know that the man Mel Gibson's Patriot was based on was actually a rapist and a murderer? Somehow that bit got left on the cutting room floor. We always try to make our heroes larger than life, and sometimes we make our villians into larger-than-life heroes as well. No, the problem is in the execution. The writing in Outlaws is terrible. Conversations between characters are so stilted and awkward that I felt like banging my head on the chair in front of me. One character complains that he sounds dumb saying "Let's ride!" and I wanted to tell him not to worry, that all of his other lines sound much dumber. And the acting! Good lord, I've seen more believable emotion coming from the road construction girl twirling her sign from "Stop" to "Slow." Colin Farrel, who showed real promise in the gripping Tigerland, freezes up under the glare of the big-budget hollywood sun. He sure looks good riding down the bad guys with six-guns blazing, but when he stops to talk, it's time for a concession stand break. Timothy Dalton, who plays Pinkerton, is British, so affecting a Scottish/Irish/British accent shouldn't be a huge challenge, but he lays it on so thick it's hard to tell where he's supposed to be from.

As far as shoot-'em ups go, this movie lands somewhere in the middle. It's got plenty of action, and it certainly has a charismatic cast. If you are measuring on the "hotness" scale, as two of the girls I went to see this with were, I guess it gets an A. Too bad the rest of the movie will leave you cold. Grade: C-

American Outlaws is rated PG-13 for language and violence.

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