View Date: August 14th, 2001
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The spirit of the Old West, and the New Hollywood are dually revived in American Outlaws, a film that every film maker should pay attention to if they ever intend to make a summer movie or for that matter, a good movie. The film not only revives the memory of the nearly dormant western genre, when men were men and movies were good, but also captures the pure spirit of what energetic and fun filmmaking is. It does it in a manner that shows that you don’t have to gross out or kowtow to the simple desires of the masses. It is sharp, simple and smart, three easy concepts that somehow get lost in the big budget brainless faire that litter the summer landscape. Director Les Mayfield has not only recalled the spirit of the old West, but has also resuscitated a summer season that was on its last legs.
Outlaws takes a slice of history, possibly embellishing a little for creative license and story purposes, telling one of what I’m sure is a million different stories of America’s most infamous cowboy outlaw; Jesse James. Along with his educated, wise, Shakespeare quoting older brother Frank and his cousins, the powder keg Cole Younger, and two other Younger brothers, James returns to his home of Liberty Missouri (in my neighborhood here) after the Civil War has ended. Western progression has precluded the government to continue the building of a coast-to-coast railroad. This railroad needs to go through Missouri, and more notably Liberty, so the officials, teamed with the famous Allan Pinkerton (of detective agency fame) go from town to town to extricate the citizens from their farms by any means necessary. The movie tells of James-Younger gang (as opposed to the Younger-James gang, one example of the movies great one-liners and intelligent dialogue) as they rebel against the big money hooligans. The setup shows that James, who is one of history’s most infamous criminals, was not an evil or bad man, but just a very daring, confidant man who defended his home, his family and his love, from the outside world. Outlaws never bogs itself down with too many stories or too many characters, but rather balances a simple story of love, vengeance and family, with some quick witted, but intelligent dialogue and action sequences and wraps it all into a compact, entertaining and even educational package. This package is wrapped in some solid performances as well which makes the ride just that much more enjoyable.
The key is not only the individual performances, but also their chemistry together. Farrell, in his second film since the wonderful, but little seen Tigerland, again shines with his cocky bravado and rugged good looks embodying what most of us imagine James was like. While I expected him to be good (granted, its his second film, but see his first, and you’ll understand) the one who caught me by surprise was Macht as Frank. Whether it was shooting six guns at bad guys, or one liners at Jesse, Macht turns in a captivating performance, making me curious to learn more about Frank, about Jesse and about their experiences together. But these two shining stars would not have worked nearly as well without the gang around them, on both sides of the debate. Scott Caan (James’s son who will soon lose that moniker if he keeps this kind of work up) as the short-tempered, second billed Cole Younger, Will McCormack as the overlooked Bob Younger (who gets some of the best lines and scenes, delivering each time and Gregory Smith as the youngest Younger (insert your own quip here) support the gang side, while Dalton, at his British sneering best, Yulin and O’Quinn make up the frustrated pursuers of James, Younger and company. Even Larter, as the obligatory love interest, shines and shows more versatility than her first roles (quiet and mousy in Final Destination, and covered in whipped cream in Varsity Blues); together these actors may have made the film which makes them household names, or at least gets them noticed.
Ultimately, American Outlaws recaptures two lost trends and puts them together into a pure, unadulterated fun summer movie ride. It has all the elements of the classic Western. It has a large ensemble cast, a simple story based in historical accuracy, realistic dialogue that is both emotional humorous and real, and of course, guns, action, drinking, and women. There is never an excess of any, but a perfect balance of all, and that is what makes this film work as good as it does. The Western used to be the kind of movie that men could enjoy, it was full of lots of guys on horses, firing guns, getting the girls, but always having a purpose. There was always a deeper story and motivation behind their actions, and Outlaws is the first film since Tombstone to recapture that. I have stayed away from comparisons to Young Guns, because that film was more about aesthetic appearances than this one is. These are not pretty or attractive people at first glance, but their strength and ruggedness comes from the inside. Guns was a good movie, Outlaws is a great one. In a movie that blurs the lines between good and bad, Outlaws uses its brains, its spark, its cast, its humor and its remembrance of all that was and is can be good in movies to make an experience that should not be missed and will not be regretted. Is it historical accurate? Probably not, but who really goes to the movies for exact reality, most of us go there to escape that, without being insulted. What Outlaws does best is make you feel good. It will make you smile, make you laugh, and when you leave the theater, it will make you feel that you haven't wasted your time. ($$$$ out of $$$$$)
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