American Outlaws” is a rock and roll western for the MTV era. It may be a little on the dumb and cheesy side, but it does not take itself or its characters too seriously and it has enough cute cowboys, shoot-outs, and romance to remind us how much we’ve missed seeing westerns.
Once we abandon any pretense of historical accuracy, we can settle back and enjoy the story — more of a fable — about the infamous Jesse James and the James-Younger gang. According to this movie, Jesse James was just misunderstood. All he wanted was to come back from the Civil War and farm his land. But those reliable western meanies, the railroad men, want that land and will do anything to get it. According to this version, James and his brother Frank joined with their cousins, the Younger brothers, were not bad guys at all. They were something of a 19th century Robin Hood, robbing from the railroads to give to the people who have lost their land.
There are some good action scenes and solid production values. The script is unimpressive. What makes the movie work as well as it does is the performance of Irish actor Colin Farrell, whose critically acclaimed but little seen performance in “Tigerland” built up a lot of anticipation for his first starring role in a major American film. He more than lives up to that promise, giving Jesse James a charm and all-American open-heartedness that make it easy for us to accept him as the hero. And this movie really is about the outlaw as rock star. People seem positively honored to be robbed by them, and the man who is charged with capturing him says admiringly, “If I was to design the perfect outlaw band, this is the gang I’d create,” and “I’d just as soon kill you, Jesse, but chasing you takes up too much of my time.”
Parents should know that the movie features a great deal of western-style violence, including a Civil War battle scene with many injuries and deaths. There are several shoot-outs and major characters are killed, including a parent. The main characters are robbers who kill when they must to get away with the money. They seem to believe that since the money belongs to the railroad, it is all right, even righteous, to steal it. They enjoy their fame as outlaws and even write to the newspapers to make sure that their story is properly told. There is some strong cowboy language, including mild references to prostitutes. A young woman makes it clear that she will not have sex with the man she loves until they are married. A scene takes place in a saloon, and a boy takes a drink.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the movie makes us root for the robbers. Would it be possible to tell this story from a different point of view? Families should do some research on the real Jesse James. There is a lot of information on the Internet, and http://www.crimelibrary.com/americana/jesse/ is a good place to start. Why is he such a fascinating and romantic figure, more than a century after his death?
There have been at least a dozen movies about Jesse James, including two starring his son, Jesse James, Jr., two starring WWII hero Audie Murphy, two with “The Lone Ranger’s” Clayton Moore, one with Rob Lowe from television’s “The West Wing,” one with Oscar-winner Robert Duvall, and even one starring Harris Yulin, who plays the mean railroad guy in this version. Kids may also be familiar with the WWF character called “Road Dogg Jesse James.” Families who enjoy this movie might enjoy seeing some other takes on the James-Younger gang. They will also enjoy two other modern westerns with action, romance, and humor, “Silverado” and “Cat Ballou.