Pretty to think so
Les Mayfield’s American Outlaws rehashes a national mythology that has long been thoroughly hashed. The story of the Missouri-based James Gang—or more precisely, the James-Younger Gang—has been told many times, from its beginnings in old-tyme dime novels, poems, and songs, through to radio, television, and of course, movies. The saga’s appeal is no secret: these guys were charming criminals who made headlines, stole money from rich folks, rode horses and carried big guns, and perhaps most importantly, maintained solid, manly family values.
The latest retelling of their saga is a lot like many other movies. A lot. It focuses on Jesse James (Colin Ferrell, whose charismatic turn in last year’s Vietnam War era rehash, Tigerland, earned him a place on several “Faces to Watch”-type lists). The movie begins at the end of the Civil War, and Jesse and his friends, though weary from battle, remain enthusiastic about “killing Yankees.” The camera opens on Jesse and his crew—his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) and their childhood friends, Cole and Bob Younger (Scott Caan, looking more like his father every minute, and Will McCormack), and their pal, the Comanche scout Tom (Nathaniel Arcand)—as they ride through an open field, their flag held high, just hankering for a fight. They get one, and you get to see some fancy riding and shooting, and a few bodies jerking back and falling, like they used to do in old school Westerns.
Mostly, however, the scene is designed to introduce you to the primary players, all referred to by name and typed by their actions. Jesse is the primary primary player. You know this because, once those Yankees start firing on the rebels—with a canon and a gatling gun, those cheaters! He decides to take matters into his own hands. He gets this peculiar smile on his face whenever he decides to do that, and his buddies can only roll their eyes and sigh and hope for the best. That Jesse, he’s got a mind of his own! In this opening scene, he tells Frank he’s going to “distract” the enemy soldiers so Frank can get a clear shot at ‘em, then he takes his horse’s reins in his mouth, sets off at a dead run across the field directly into the opposing force, with two pistols blazing. The dumb Union army shoots and shoots and shoots, missing every time. Jesse is unstoppable. Frank kills the weapons operators and then the James and Younger boys—and oh yes, Tom too—can ride on outta there, feeling triumphant and happy about that pile of dead enemies they’re leaving behind. It’s grand, being so proficient at killing, and it’s pretty darn All American too. And they congratulate each other on being so gifted, a couple of times.
Still, all good things come to an end, and within minutes, the boys learn that the war’s over and they have toad on back home to Liberty, Missouri. Again, Jesse’s established as the good boy: he wants to return to his old life, farming and whatever. It’s never quite explained how Tom fits into this “going back home” scenario, as we might assume he has his own family and another life somewhere, one that may even have been disrupted when the white folks decided to “settle” Comanche land, but why worry about it? Tom is the crucial “diversity” member of this American gang, the one with about three lines.
Still, this being the James-Younger Gang story, it’s not long before the boys run into more trouble and have to form that very gang. It turns out that the railroad’s coming through Liberty, and the owner, Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin), is buying up all the farms that lay in his way. So no one mistakes his intentions, Rains has employed the Pinkerton Detective Agency to assist in the buying-out process: they accompany Rains’s point man, one Rollin Parker (Terry O’Quinn, who will forever live in my heart as The Stepfather), as he travels from farm to farm, handing out contracts to be signed, or else. Lucky for Ma James (Kathy Bates: and what has happened to her career?), Jesse and Frank arrive back in town just before the railroad men come round to her farm. They’re chopping wood, tinkering with the wagon, and recalling the good old war days when they could shoot down Yankees like the dogs they are, when—as if on cue—Parker appears. Even better, he brings along Allan Pinkerton Himself (Timothy Dalton), with a couple of detectives acting all mean and smug, like they have some Manifest Destiny to push their way Westward.
And here, honestly, lies the film’s greatest insight into the nature of national mythologies. They are so flexible! So democratic! (In fact, if you go to the film’s official website, you can enter a contest to win a stay at a Dude Ranch: you too can feel the power of being an American Outlaw.) In another version of this legend, the railroaders might be the heroes, braving the odds, ensuring communication and travel across the United States, bringing progress to the ignorant masses. But in American Outlaws, they are the villains, and the spirited Jameses and Youngers, et. al., are the good guys, dedicated to protecting the underdog farmers against them pushy fellas with the smoke-puffing Iron Horses.
And they are mighty pushy. After the Jameses refuse to sell their land, the Youngers have an off-screen run-in with the railroad men. Suddenly, Cole’s about to be hanged in the town square the next morning. (Throughout this movie, things happen very fast, but not because it’s well-paced. Quite the contrary: it feels like American Outlaws has been edited with a pair of garden shears, with scenes cutting off abruptly and connections between them left to you to figure out. Then again, it’s not like the narrative is hard to follow or anything: there’s a bad guy, shoot him!). To protect their land, their heritage, and their shooting-and-drinking buddy Cole, the boys must organize—they take on Cole’s barely teenaged brother Jimmy (Gregory Smith), and a couple of other young men feeling disenfranchised by the railroad (Ty O’Neal and Joe Stevens), and the gang is born.
Their first official outlaw act is to bust Cole out from under the hangman’s noose, in broad daylight, just like Robin Hood’s men did, when Robin Hood was played by Kevin Costner. One of these new gang (honorary) members is Jesse’s girl, Zee Mimms (Ali Larter, looking just like she’s stepped off a Cosmo cover, so fresh and so clean is she). While the guys have been off having all their fun at war, she’s been stuck home, watching a series of hangings in the town square, so she knows how they work and can help in the planning. Just so you know that she’s a worthy girl, she warns the guys at their decision-making meeting, they all better be men enough to listen to a woman. The camera cuts from her determined face to Jesse’s impressed one, and, quick as you can say “Spanky and Alfalfa and Darla,” Zee’s inducted into the gang.
From here, the legend just grows and grows, including a bit more motivation. This comes in the form of the railroad men’s ridiculous decision to start blowing up farmers’ homes. Frustrated that none of the locals will tell Cole’s whereabouts after his escape, they resort to dynamite. One of the film’s most colossally corny scenes begins with Jesse and Frank riding home in a hurry from a celebratory hoedown (silly townsfolk: imagining they’ve beat the railroad, just 25 minutes into the film). As soon as they arrive, the house blows up. And then, on perfect cue, Ma stumbles out the door, her hair mussed and her face sooty, so that she can collapse in their arms and—with a little gasp—die. Well, the poor kids just don’t have a choice now, but to rob banks and train depots. Along the way, they become local heroes, because they, unlike those greedy Easterners in their bowler hats and silk suits, know how to give back to their community, literally giving their neighbors cash money.
The rest of the film is comprised of a string of robberies and shoot-outs and slow-motion shots of the boys riding their horses during dusty days, dark nights, and rainstorms. While Pinkerton spends some months calculating how to trap them, you also see repeated scenes of Rains chewing him out, sputtering and fuming and demanding that he “Do something!”, just like those short-tempered captains do in cop movies. There are also a few “comedic relief” scenes where Bob Younger expresses his jealousy that Jesse gets all the handsome outlaw press (he looks better in the Wanted Posters sketches, anyway), and a couple showing Zee pouting back home, since Jesse and the guys have gone off on their robbery spree without her.
Eventually, Jesse realizes that all he really wants is to be like everyone else—not an outlaw at all, but a farmer with a wife and kids and maybe a couple of horses. And then he’s arrested while on his honeymoon in Florida, specifically, while he’s smooching with Zee, all wet and sleek in the pretty blue water, just like a Chris Isaak video (I’m imagining that the facts are more or less correct, but jeepers, this film’s plot just drags on and on, with no discernable rising and falling action). The gang stages yet another daring escape from a train that’s carrying Jesse to Washington DC, where he’s to be tried in a federal court, and you might think for a minute that you’ve dropped into Wild Wild West, minus Will Smith. I confess, I was sorely missing Will Smith.