“Bad is good again,” say the ads for this latest take on the Jesse James (played by Colin Farrell, Tigerland) saga — a somewhat bizarre claim since the storyline of American Outlaws is a more blatant whitewash job than ever Tom Sawyer perpetrated on Aunt Polly’s fence. Oh, sure, they rob banks and shoot up a few thousand extras and stuntmen, but they aren’t really bad kids, you see, because the banks all contain money belonging to evil railroad magnate Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin, Rush Hour 2). All the people they blow away are either his minions or just plain aren’t as pretty as our outlaw heroes, and can therefore be discounted. The movie’s purported take on the James/Younger gang is that they’re like a good-natured rock group on tour for the first time (producer James G. Robinson has actually made this comparison) as they blast, bully and rob their way across Missouri and become well-loved by everyone except those tight-assed railroad guys. OK, if you’ve ever shelled out 80-odd bucks for Stones’ tickets, then maybe you can see the connection between rock stars and train robbers, but otherwise this is something of a stretch. The concept isn’t new, of course. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is built on it. But Butch Cassidy has the wit not to utterly whitewash its anti-heroes. What the folks who gave us American Outlaws forgot (besides historical fact) was to put the “anti” in anti-hero. Director Les Mayfield and screenwriters Roderick Taylor (the TV movie At Any Cost) and John Rogers (TV’s The Cosby Show) appear to have thought they were making another A Knight’s Tale. They weren’t. The heroes of that film really were heroes. It was easy to believe how A Knight’s Tale’s Heath Ledger became a hero on the jousting circuit. It becomes harder to swallow when your hero thinks nothing of blowing up and burning down an entire town to save his neck. None of this would matter much if the movie was very good, since only the most credulous is apt to think American Outlaws has a lot of connection with historical accuracy. However, it’s not good. It’s scarcely even a movie. It’s a concept that no one fleshed-out: “Hey, let’s cast a lot of cute boys as the James/Younger gang. In between hold-ups, they can bicker about who’s the cutest and cleverest and, oh yeah, they can take their shirts off a lot.” That’s really about all that’s here. For further eye-candy, they’ve tossed in Ali Larter (Legally Blonde) as a romantic interest for Jesse, but since the film isn’t going to shoot itself in its PG-13 rating, she can’t take her shirt off (neither can she act, but that’s another matter). To add some “weight” to the proceedings, we are given Kathy Bates as Ma James and Timothy Dalton as Jesse’s nemesis, Alan Pinkerton. Bates spends her screen time looking strangely pleased with herself — probably because she knows she’s going to be killed off early on and get out of the movie. Dalton, on the other hand, stalks through the movie hiding behind a beard and a phony accent (it’s either Scottish or Irish), seemingly hoping he might go unrecognized. On the plus side, American Outlaws boasts a couple of dynamite action sequences — the better of which looks like it was cribbed from Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado and is wrong-headedly placed about 30 minutes from the weaker climactic one. Of course, since this is an upbeat take on Jesse and the boys, it never gets within a thousand miles of “that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave,” and offers us a tidy happy ending. If the western wasn’t already dead, this could’ve killed it.
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