- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

A nondescript generic title conceals the fact that "American Outlaws" is a playful and facetious Western yarn. To this end the names and legends of authentic fraternal outlaws of the post-Civil War period are borrowed: Jesse and Frank James, impersonated by Colin Farrell and Gabriel Macht, respectively; Scott Caan, Will McCormack and Gregory Smith as Cole, Bob and Jim Younger, respectively. The rattletrap execution, which rates "attitude" much higher than prowess, leaves us with "A Knight's Tale" in baggy, smirky Western drag.

The straight-faced tradition associated with movies about Jesse James puts a heavy burden of proof on filmmakers who try to be cards. Philip Kaufman in "The Great Northfield, Minnesota, Raid" and Walter Hill in "The Long Riders" put an emphasis on period authenticity that commands respect.

Ang Lee was similarly motivated in the recent "Ride With the Devil," which ignored the James and Younger brothers but dealt with the same conflicts and region of the country.

It's one thing when a Bob Hope presumes to star in "Alias Jesse James" after 20 years as a Hollywood fixture. It's another when virtually unknown Hollywood pups presume to get tongue-in-cheek on meager acquaintance.

The future train robbers are introduced making chumps of a group of Union soldiers who have the brothers outnumbered and outgunned. Obviously, they haven't figured on Frank's long-range marksmanship or Jesse's one-man dynamism.

Frank's rifle riddles the Union artillery, and Jesse's two-gun antics create havoc among the Union infantry. Incredibly, an overwhelming disadvantage is turned into a rout for the rebels from Liberty, Mo. Even more incredibly, they learn only minutes later that the war has ended, with a Confederate surrender.

Returning home, Jesse and Frank are reunited with their wacky ma, played by Kathy Bates.

Jesse begins a formal courtship of a doctor's daughter, Zee Mimms, played by Ali Larter. The James family refuses to be intimidated by Thaddeus Rains, tyrant of the Rock Island Railroad (Harris Yulin), or his paid enforcer, Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton). The two actors have seen better use made of their skills.

The upshot of the James-Younger vendetta against the railroad: The big shots cry uncle. Jesse and Zee ride off scot-free, assured by the defeatist Pinkerton that he won't risk further humiliation if they take off to Tennessee. Occasionally, members of the gang do get shot during holdups. Union soldiers and Pinkerton agents fall to the outlaws.

None of these losses has any dramatic or moral weight. In fact, it would be more decent of director Les Mayfield to avoid mortal consequences entirely, leaving the gunfights to be confused with harmless exhibitions.

Jesse on the rampage is sheer exhibitionism, for example, a whirlwind of acrobatics and revolver fire that bears no relationship to anything feasible or practical. But perhaps it's unfair to demand even token credibility from a movie this wedded to triviality.

In some ways it's a pure distillation of Hollywood at the moment: smitten with criminality and immune to integrity, even integrity of a ridiculous sort.


Colin Farrell making a name for himself in Hollywood, C9.

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