‘American Bandits’ Ain’t No ‘Treasure of Sierra Madre’

[15 June 2010]

By Brent McKnight

Fred Olen Ray is nothing if not prolific. At this moment, he has 115 directing credits listed on IMDb, many of which prominently feature the words “bikini” or “hooker” in the title. His films have names like Bikini Frankenstein, Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros, and Bikini Hoe-Down, or Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Honey Britches, aka Death Farm, aka Hillbilly Hooker. Because he has so much free time, Ray also moonlights as a professional wrestler, performing as Fabulous Freddie Valentine. Why not?

In 2007, like many people, Ray saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and decided to make his own James-based movie. The result is 2010’s American Bandits:  Frank and Jesse James. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a great movie, American Bandits is not. 

Following the Civil War, good Confederate boys Frank and Jesse James (Tim Abell and George Stults), and their gang, rob a stagecoach carrying the Union Army’s payroll. In the process Jesse takes a round in the shoulder. Before divvying up the take, the brothers split off from the others to get Jesse some medical attention, and everyone agrees to meet in four days at the town of Gila Wells, which they think is a ghost town. Ed Bass (Jeffry Combs, previously in Re-Animator) doesn’t like this, but doesn’t have a choice. It is after all, the James Gang, and they don’t take orders from Bass. Letting Jesse rest, Frank then splits off from his sibling to go scout out the meeting place, where he encounters a group of people that are stranded there because their stagecoach was stolen and they can’t walk. 

Apparently it is too far to the next town, or they are lazy. Peter Fonda plays Kane, a Federal Marshall who wants to catch the brothers to further his political career, and he sends his mustachioed man, Burdette (Anthony Tyler Quinn), after them. It seems like a bad idea to send one guy to catch an entire gang, but that’s just my opinion, and I’m not a lawman.

After the initial gun battle, the story plods along, following the parallel stories of the brothers, their situations, and the respective love stories that Ray, also the writer of this little fiasco, forces into the story.  Everyone hates the Union, that point is hammered home, and the James boys aren’t so much a pair of murdering bandits out for personal gain as they are Southern Avengers, taking it back for the Stars and Bars. They’re not outlaws, but celebrated folk heroes, and good men driven to extremes by the dastardly North. At best, it is n vastly oversimplified version of post Civil War relations.

Before you ask yourself why Peter Fonda is in this movie, remember, despite some great turns of craft, his resume is littered with questionable roles. For every Easy Rider there is a Wild Hogs. In American Bandits, he turns in a performance that makes his part in Escape from LA seem positively Oscar-worthy in comparison. Instead of being tough and grizzled, he delivers every line with such an overwhelming flatness that the term monotone seems too grandiose. There is no inflection whatsoever in his voice, no expression on his face, or any emotion in him at all.  A robot could have played this part with equal success.

Stults, in his most notable post-7th Heaven role, looks impressively like Brat Pitt, who also played the part of Jesse James. He has the shtick down, from the posture to the facial expressions. It is so close that he could probably earn a living as a celebrity impersonator.

It is difficult to care about these characters since they’re bland and lack any real motivation. There is little tension, and only the flimsiest premise drives the story forward. The love interests feel obligatory, and nothing about either of them is natural or believable. In the commentary, Ray even admits that there is no main bad guy. He says it like it’s a good thing, but he couldn’t be more wrong. Like the protagonists who simply float from place to place in life, the story follows the same logic, drifting along until it ends with the mandatory gun fight.

One of the biggest problems that low-budget, period-piece movies face is making everything appear authentic. The costumes themselves are fine, and close enough that they appear accurate (at least I’m in no position to question their precision). The issue is that everything looks too new. All of the clothes and hats are in pristine condition. Nothing is faded. No edges are ripped or frayed. No one is even dusty from riding a horse all day and sleeping on the ground at night. From what I can see, the layout and construction of the saloon looks believable, but I doubt that the back wall of a bar in an abandoned ghost town is going to be made out of brand new sheets of treated plywood.

Details can sell or ruin a story like this, and in this case, they bury it. Only Combs fits the part. He is suitably run down that you can believe he spends most of his time outdoors in the wilderness, riding a horse from town to town. He even blacked out his teeth for his part. Everyone else is just playing dress up.

One thing I did appreciate about American Bandits was that when Jesse gets a bullet dug out of his shoulder, he doesn’t do the stereotypical western hero thing where he bears down and takes the pain with a grimace, without making a sound. Instead, he screams, a lot. That seems like a more realistic reaction to frontier surgery.

Before the movie starts, the MPAA advisory screen comes up with a big, capital “R”. However, the DVD box lists the rating as PG. Despite the violence inherent in the genre, I’m inclined to believe the latter. There is no swearing, and the only blood is a small dot on Jesse’s shirt after a bullet has been removed from his shoulder and his the bandaged up. This could be shown on any basic cable channel at any time of day without anything having to be edited for content. 

The disc also comes with a trailer, photo gallery, and a commentary track with Ray and producer, Jeffrey Schenck (writer and producer of The Dog Who Saved Christmas). Given Ray’s filmography, and his part-time gig as a professional wrestler, I was hoping for some madness, or at least some entertaining banter, but I was disappointed. It is essentially 88-minutes of Ray and Schenck trying to make their crappy western sound more important than it is, comparing it to classics like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and the work of John Ford. They get points for referencing Dolls, but that’s about it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/126868-american-bandits-frank-and-jesse-james/