This is not a western on the level of "Unforgiven" or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". Rather, it's a sub-genre in the style of "Young Guns", the Mario Van Peebles' "Posse" and Walter Hill's "The Long Riders". In other words, a vehicle to present a fresh batch of young Hollywood leading men in need of a jolt to their careers. It's a formula and this isn't the last we're going to see of it on our screens. Trouble is, it doesn't do much to revive interest in the western.
Walter Hill had a cute idea for "The Long Riders", a movie which also purported to tell the story of the famous outlaws, Frank and Jesse James. He cast it with brothers playing brothers. The Keach boys played the Jameses; The Carradines played the Youngers; and the Quaid brothers played the Millers. In "American Outlaws" we have no such casting verisimilitude to contend with. Nor are we bound to contend with such mundane concepts as "facts". In the inimitable words (and mind set) of the movie's executive producer Jonathan Zimbert, "The James Gang is kind of like a rock-and-roll band out on the road on their first tour together." Just so we know we're not dealing with any claim to history here.
In the opening sequence, a confederate platoon of southern boys demonstrate their courage and cleverness as they clash with Union troops at the end of the Civil War. Included are Frank and Jesse James (Gabriel Macht and Colin Farrell), Cole Younger (Scott Caan) and his brothers Bob and Jim (Will McCormack and Gregory Smith). The war is declared over and, when they return to their home town and Ma James (Kathy Bates) they find injustices galore, which gets down to the railroad barons mercilessly obtaining lands from innocent farmers for their westward routes.
Jesse also finds a grown up Zee Mimms (Ali Larter) who was thought of more as a child when he left, but she's a child no more and is soon the love of the domestic side of his life.
Domesticity is not what most consumes his days, however, as he and Cole Younger team up to fight the railroad, as exemplified by its unscrupulous owner, Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin), his master detective Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) who, in an empty sort of way, tries to convey that he's a canny and ruthless pursuer of the James gang, and railroad manager Rollin Parker (Terry O'Quinn, of "Millennium" fame). As written, there isn't an effective one among them, allowing our gang to ride roughshod wherever they will. The biggest source of risk and conflict seems to be among the members of the gang themselves as Younger defies James. It's all pale and unconvincing. There is no Clint Eastwood or Gene Hackman among them.
The characterizations are truer to the needs of Hollywood agents than to the harsh realities of the people whose lives provided the pretense. For instance, the real James and Younger brothers did indeed fight in the Civil War, joining the guerrilla fighters in William Clarke Quantrill's Raiders. Jesse was taken under the wing of raider William "Bloody Bill" Anderson, a sadistic outlaw of countless wartime atrocities -- which most likely primed James for his gang's 20-plus murders. Yes, the folk legend and his gang left many bodies in their wake as they worked their money-stealing magic on the railroad and its riders.
Such sobering details come up whenever a new attempt is made to use the mythology to advance the latest crop of male leads. Whatever. Colin Farrell plays Jesse James here because he has the right looks and because he's on the cusp of stardom, but it's as one-dimensional a performance as any other in this dusty romp on the range. It's not his fault. None of the pros in the film (Bates, Yulin, Dalton) fared much better in the safe confines of a mostly exploitative effort. One might come away from it with the impression that Ali Larter did herself the most good by displaying a saucy, intelligent country gal with enough attractiveness and personality to register in casting offices.
Estimated cost: $35,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $14,000,000.
Rated M, for Misfire.