*½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A
starring Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Gabriel Macht
screenplay by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers
directed by Les Mayfield
by Walter Chaw Thinking that Oscar-winner Kathy Bates had reached a career nadir as a Bible-thumpin' mama in Adam Sandler's deplorable The Waterboy, colour me surprised to note that Ms. Bates actually plumbs a new depth in reprising that performance for Les Mayfield's painful American Outlaws. The "Dawson's Creek" Western also marks the second time that Terry O'Quinn has been in Young Guns and Timothy Dalton in The Rocketeer, leading me to conclude that I have wasted altogether too much of my life watching terrible movies.
American Outlaws does have a couple of decent John Woo-lite action sequences--each of them stolen from a better film (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Long Riders, Silverado) so as to turn American Outlaws into an extended generation-next trailer for good movies. The problem of course is that there needs to be captions instructing the youngsters on where to go for the real thing. To be fair, it's the kind of movie I would have liked a great deal should I have stumbled upon it some Saturday afternoon when I was nine, flipping around after cartoons for something to watch while the sugar buzz from my frosted-flake breakfast pancaked.
Frank and Jesse James (Gabriel Macht and Colin Farrell) finish fighting the Yankees and start fighting the Man, their career shift scored by a nice Moby track (which is pretty much all you need to know in an MTV nutshell). The brothers' new heavies are land developers represented by professional white collar villain Harris Yulin, the evil railroad represented by professional evil Briton Dalton (so definitively evil that other actors like Jason Isaacs have devoted themselves to imitating Dalton when playing evil Britons), and the unreasoning hand of justice represented by professional psychopath O'Quinn. Together with the Younger brothers, Cole, Jim, and Bob (Scott Caan, Gregory Smith, and Will McCormack), the James/Younger gang goes on a gentleman bank-robbing rampage à la The Newton Boys, stealing from the rich and giving to the sharecropper. It doesn't have much to do with history, has nothing to do with physical possibility, and only has a passing familiarity with narrative coherence. What it does have, however, is a performance from Ali Larter as tomboy love interest Zee that is so awful I formally take back every mean thing I ever said about Hilary Swank.
American Outlaws doesn't merit very much discussion. It's a movie that is far more interesting sociologically than literally: What sort of cultural environment fosters the creation of movies like this and what does it say about the miscalculation behind such thought that precipitates their box-office crash-and-burn? Clearly the film rose out of the cult of teensploitation that seeks to rob pre-pubescent girls of their babysitting money, a trend traceable to the stunning popularity of Titanic among that demographic. (Much of the more inexplicable artifacts of our current culture from Britney Spears to Freddie Prinze Jr. are attributable in some way to Titanic.) But its failure despite its flashiness, beefcake factor, and abortive romance point to first an underestimation of the archetypal power of the "wilting hothouse brat" model of Titanic, second an underestimation of the preteen girl demographic that appears too bright to be taken by movies that clearly suck. American Outlaws isn't nearly as bad as you'd think: It's pleasantly ludicrous, only Larter overtly offends, and a couple of the recycled action scenes are agreeably sadistic. But in the end, the cookie-cutter American Outlaws delivers an all-too-familiar epitaph, particularly during and for the summer-movie season.
For all the weaknesses of the film, Warner DVD's beautiful 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of American Outlaws is a showcase piece for its audio/visual transfer. The colours are crisp and warm, the Dolby and DTS 5.1 mixes make fantastic use of atmospheric effects (bullets zinging, hooves rumbling, glass tinkling), and there is nary a compression artifact nor print imperfection. The film looks and sounds as good as it probably can. A feature-length commentary by writer John Rogers, director Les Mayfield, and editor Michael Tronick displays a good deal of self-knowledge and humour (a notably stupid scene is attacked by Tronick as being a "homoerotic bit of nonsense")--as well as a serious examination of cinematic technique, philosophy, and execution. Rogers serves as a kind of de facto interviewer, drawing Mayfield's thoughts on storyboarding, casting, and preparation out in a series of pointed and scene-appropriate questions. American Outlaws sports a talker that is among the best "layman" (that is, "non-critical") ones I've heard, and I've listened to more commentary tracks than is perhaps healthy.
An extended featurette section features four documentary shorts (ranging from five minutes to nine) that go from a general "making of" to detailed looks at the set design, costuming, and cowboy camp preparation. It's a little sad to see the end result after witnessing the exhaustive preparation, but what're you gonna do? I'm reminded of the incredible Planet of the Apes DVD supplements--wasted on a film that is one of the year's worst. Two deleted scenes (worthless, but no more worthless than many scenes not deleted), production stills, trailers, TV spots, and trailers for six vaguely-related films (Chill Factor, Young Guns II, True Romance, etc.) round out the DVD-accessible features.
A DVD-ROM feature is magnificent. In addition to the standard web links, it offers an option to watch the film while storyboard illustrations and the script scroll along to the action. It is lovingly executed and a must-have for fans of the films and fledgling filmmakers. Really an impressive feature executed flawlessly for the student and the fanatic. Originally published: December 31, 2001.