Isaiah 5:20 warns, “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil.” In that case, woe unto the marketing geniuses at Warner Bros. whose MTV-meets-the-old-west actioner American Outlaws rides under the advertising banner of “Bad is good again.” Indeed, Jesse James, Cole Younger and their wild-eyed sibs are turned into cult heroes through careful casting (Farrell as James is a pretty-boy cross between Freddie Prinze Jr. and John Stamos), and romanticized shoot-‘em-up. These gunslingers aren’t ruthless thieves motivated by greed or the pure thrill of murder. Rather, they’re disrupted Missouri farm boys driven to violence by evil rail barons bent on forcing them off their land. The “righteousness of progress”—embodied in the malicious Thaddeus Rains—gets the evil eye. All that’s missing is the mustachioed Snidely Whiplash tying fair maidens to the very railroad tracks being laid by Rains’ spike-driving thugs.
Forced to defend their turf, the James-Younger gang decides to hit the railroad where it hurts . . . in the pocketbook. They rob banks, stages and trains at gunpoint, stealing Rains’ working capital and sharing the wealth with small-town folk like a bunch of overcoat-clad Robin Hoods. Meanwhile, Jesse struggles between his loyalty to the gang and his love for Doc Mimms’ beautiful daughter, Zee. As might be expected, any wisecracking posse that has this many charter members is sure to lose a few to attrition along the way, but the young guns who survive are presumably richer for the experience.
positive elements: While fighting in the Civil War, Jesse gets grazed by an enemy soldier who realizes his prey now has him dead-to-rights. Jesse doesn’t kill the young man, but boots him in the rear and tells him to go home. This attitude of mercy resurfaces throughout the film (though Jesse isn’t opposed to racking up a body count as well). Viewers see how both sides in this feud manipulate the media to gain advantage, suggesting that he who controls the flow and tone of information—in leaflets or on the TV news—can manipulate public sympathies. Characters show compassion to the injured, and stick their necks out for one another. When gang members squabble about their relative status as living legends, their pride appears foolish and detrimental to the cohesiveness of the group (reminiscent of how the disciples jockeyed for dominance in Mark 9:33-35). Zee insists that she and Jesse tie the knot before they share sexual intimacy.
spiritual content: There are several references to prayer and worship, but the portrayal of Christians is disappointing. A man of the cloth secretly marries Jesse (who’s on the lam) and Zee, then proceeds to offer the couple alcohol and bribes them in exchange for his silence. In the role of Mrs. James, Bates plays yet another religious woman a few fries short of a Happy Meal (as she did in The Waterboy and Misery). In the same breath, she esteems people who both love God and kill Yankees, and suggests that Jesus has a rooting interest in the Confederacy. She and her sons square off against pushy railroad execs trying to force them off their land, which leads her to pray for God’s guidance and seconds later conclude that the Lord thinks it’s fine for Frank and Jesse to gun down the unwanted guests and bury them in the backyard. With her dying breath she peers into eternity and says, “Look at that; the good Lord’s a bit shorter than I reckoned.”
sexual content: Young men recall one of Cole’s past sexual encounters. When the gang kicks up their heels in a saloon, the fun includes pairing off and heading upstairs with resident prostitutes (sex is merely implied, not shown).
violent content: Quite a bit, as well as many relatively bloodless fatalities. Before the opening credits are through, we see numerous people picked off by sharpshooters, blown up by cannon fire and shot with Gatling guns as part of a Civil War battle. The body count climbs considerably as the film wears on. One robbery in particular leads to a flurry of gunfire as the railroad has an ambush waiting. People get shot with pistols at close range. Buildings are burned to the ground and blown sky-high with dynamite. A man is shown hanging from a gallows, and another faces similar execution barring a last-minute rescue. In a battle for dominance, Jesse and Cole get into a fistfight that ends with the pair pointing guns at each other.
crude or profane language: More than 30 profanities, including several s-words and a few exclamatory uses of God’s name.
drug and alcohol content: Young outlaws consume whiskey. The youngest of the group tries a shot and promptly gets sick.
other negative elements: Characters gamble on roulette. Situational ethics create sympathy for immoral people, inspiring the audience to root for vengeful young outlaws because they’re not as inherently evil as the bad guys working for the railroad. Just before a member of the James-Younger gang gasps his last, he assures his buddies that going out in a blaze of glory is a small price to pay for his adventures, “It was the best time of my life. I was famous.”
conclusion: Over the years, Jesse James has been the subject of classic Hollywood serials, foreign films and even a 1966 sci-fi/horror/Western entitled Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. The legendary figure has been portrayed by actors ranging from Tyrone Power and Clayton Moore (TV’s The Lone Ranger) to Robert Wagner and Rob Lowe. So it was just a matter of time before a new team of filmmakers dusted off the man and the myth for a new generation of moviegoers. This one turns desperadoes into teen pop icons.
“Throughout history,” explains executive producer Jonathan Zimbert, “outlaws have always been popular, particularly among young people who consider themselves outlaws, rebelling against the establishment. The James gang is kind of like a rock ’n’ roll band out on the road on their first tour together. This is something today’s audience can relate to.”
Clearly targeting the MTV crowd, American Outlaws is yet another case of style over substance. And even the style feels tired. It’s not an awful movie, but a hectic one inhabited by characters who look and act like they’re on their way to a Western-themed frat party. Yet for all of its obvious demographic calculations, American Outlaws fails to realize that most teens find Westerns about as attractive as snakebite. Meanwhile, children likely to accept such silliness on its own terms probably won’t be allowed to see it due to the film’s profanity and nonstop violence.