[Screen It]

(2001) (Colin Farrell, Scott Caan) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action/Adventure: After returning from the American Civil War, a small group of Confederate renegades become notorious outlaws as they rob and sabotage a railroad company that's threatening to take control of their land.
It's right after the American Civil War and a small group of Confederate veterans have returned to their hometown of Liberty, Missouri. Among them are brothers Jesse (COLIN FARRELL) and Frank James (GABRIEL MACHT) who are happy to see their mother (KATHY BATES), and brothers Cole (SCOTT CAAN) and Bob Younger (WILL McCORMACK) who are now reunited with their younger brother, Jim (GREGORY SMITH).

Although Jesse is encouraged by how Zee Mimms (ALI LARTER), daughter of Doc Mimms (RONNIE COX), has grown up, things don't look good for the men and their Confederate companions including Clell Miller (TY O'NEAL), Loni Packwood (JOE STEVENS) and Comanche Tom (NATHANIEL ARCAND).

It seems that a Union garrison now occupies their town and that railroad tycoon, Thaddeus Rains (HARRIS YULIN), of the Rock Island Railroad, is using eminent domain to claim a right of way thoroughfare for his line. For those who don't accept his offer of $2 dollars an acre, Rains' right-hand man, Rollin Parker (TERRY O'QUINN), hired consultant and founder of the Secret Service, Allan Pinkerton (TIMOTHY DALTON), and his men are on hand to take care of any problems should they arise.

They do in the form of the angry farmers who've decided they've had enough of the government and Northerners pushing them around. Accordingly, the farmers form the James-Younger gang and decide to disrupt the railroad company's expansion by robbing it off its money and sabotaging its tracks. The gang soon becomes infamous for their various bank robberies and daring rescues, much to the chagrin of Rains.

From the point on, and as Pinkerton and his men try to track them down and capture the various outlaws, the various members of the James-Younger gang continue with their quest, all while dealing with both internal and external complications that threaten their goal, freedom and lives.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
As it probably was to 99.9 percent of my fellow high school students at the time, history class - like many others - was a boring endeavor filled with countless dates, names and events that made little sense and certainly didn't seem important to a teenager more interested in girls, being able to drive and simply having fun.

Now, twenty-some years later and in crystal clear hindsight, I realize I should have paid better attention since such historical subject matter is now fascinating to me. Yet, while I'm sure the teaching of such material at the time was presented in something resembling an interesting and possibly even engaging fashion, most kids then (and now) probably didn't (and don't) see it that way.

Accordingly, the learning of history did and probably still does come from other sources - you know, the reputable ones such as comic books, TV series and theatrical movies. While kids have been taught about the Old West since it was, well, the New West, they've probably learned as much or more from the various movies about it. That's including, but not limited to the fact that Clint Eastwood was one tough, squinty-eyed hombre you didn't want to mess with back in the old days.

One of the more legendary, notorious and real Old West characters, however, was Jesse James. Now, students of all ages will get the chance to learn all about him in "American Outlaws," a moderately engaging yarn that benefits from a terrific lead performance, all while stretching historical facts to tell its story.

Granted, any film bereft of the documentary tag should be cautiously viewed as an educational tool. That's especially true since filmmakers are known to possess and flaunt a little thing called artistic license, a non-Government issued grant that frees them from the need to stick to the facts.

Upon witnessing this effort from director Les Mayfield ("Blue Streak," "Flubber") and screenwriters Roderick Taylor (making his feature film debut after penning various TV movies) and John Rogers (also making his debut), it's not difficult to discern that the filmmakers have liberally used their license and made a film for a young audience that's naturally more interested in stories of rebels, outcasts and troublemakers than the historical truth.

That's all fine and dandy from a marketing standpoint since such viewers - at least as a general rule - do drive the box office. Yet, that doesn't necessarily answer the question about whether the film is any good or at least enjoyable for them, other viewers or fans of traditional westerns.

Like most any entry in the genre, the standard elements are in place, including courageous and occasionally foolhardy young men and the "purty" woman who gets the otherwise smooth operator all flustered and tongue-tied. Then there are the six-shooters and various shootouts, and the various Old West saloons, prostitutes and dastardly villains.

Like 1988's "Young Guns," however, that also took an old story and populated it with young and attractive performers, most everything in this film has been bathed in a contemporary attitude and style. That's all the better to play to the target audience, but it's unclear how all of that will sit with older viewers.

Characters speak, behave and perform stunts in a way that won't win points for historical accuracy but should appeal to those willingly seeking out this sort of film. In accordance with that, the film has a short attention span mindset where various scenes don't necessarily effect or follow through on what preceded them except in a linear, A to Z storytelling fashion.

While not distractingly episodic, each scene pretty much stands on its own, with various characters embodying the live for today, forget the past attitude. They don't seem particularly upset when they learn that their side lost the Civil War, and seemingly forget or at least ignore the fact that close family members have just died. Yes, death occurred far more frequently and at younger ages back then so maybe there was a greater, nonchalant tolerance for it. Whatever the case, the characters here seem too preoccupied with having fun, appearing as charming rogues, and/or robbing banks to take the time to remember the dead, let alone grieve for them once the immediate scene is done.

To be fair, some of the film's action scenes are decently staged and executed, even if it appears that Bruce Willis and Jackie Chan seem to have time-traveled back to the 1860s to teach characters how to roll and shoot bad guys or hang from a chain and run along the exterior side of a moving train while doing the same.

The best thing the film has going for it is Colin Farrell ("Tigerland," "The War Zone") the young Irish actor who dons a convincing American accent for the second straight time after making a tremendous stateside debut in Joel Schumacher's little seen Vietnam flick. Exuding enough vivaciousness and energy to light up several small towns, Farrell makes the character and film all his, and it's near impossible to be dissatisfied with or keep your eyes off his charismatic performance.

Gabriel Macht ("The Object of My Affection," "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") is also good as his better educated brother, while Scott Caan ("Ready to Rumble," "Varsity Blues"), Will McCormack ("Boiler Room," "The Fourth") and Gregory Smith ("The Patriot," "Small Soldiers") are all decent as the various Younger brothers. Playing the lone major female character, Ali Larter ("Legally Blonde," "Final Destination") easily holds her own amidst all of the testosterone, but the romantic subplot between her and Farrell's characters doesn't get enough time to build and entertain viewers as much as it should.

It takes a while for Timothy Dalton ("The Beautician and the Beast," "The Living Daylights") to get going as the gang's nemesis, but once he does, it's fun watching the former Bond hunt them down. Granted his character is no Marshal Gerard (the character Tommy Lee Jones played in "The Fugitive"), the screenwriters don't give him enough decent lines to speak, and he's not on screen enough to be as effective as he could be. Yet, he's far better than Harris Yulin ("Cradle Will Rock," "Bean") as the one-dimensional, head villain.

While the cast and crew manage to portray their real-life characters in enough of a Robin Hood style approach that makes one seem to forget or at least blindly overlook their wrongdoings, the contemporary angle that filmmakers have taken - along with the often haphazard and/or occasionally poor filmmaking they've put forth - means that this film won't play far beyond the target audience. It clearly won't ever be viewed as a classic of the Western genre. Moderately entertaining in a mindless and certainly non-academic fashion, "American Outlaws" thus rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 13, 2001 / Posted August 17, 2001

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