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American Outlaws


American Outlaws

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Historical accuracy has little to do with the Jesse James legend, because legends are inherently borne in the murky areas where the facts trail off and imagination and ideology sketch in the myth. Films about James tend to be more revealing of their eras than of the man himself. Audiences during the Depression were eager to accept Tyrone Power's James as a charismatic Robin Hood figure, a rogue individualist who struck a blow against the organized tyranny of the railroad. In the iconoclastic and anti-heroic '70s, Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid cast James as a murderous psychopath still fighting the Civil War for the Confederates. (At the sensible center, Walter Hill's masterful The Long Riders has a more ambiguous point of view, and is considered the most authentic factually.) So, what does American Outlaws, a rollicking new Western about the exploits of the James-Younger gang, have to say about James and the early 21st century? Very little that hasn't been market-tested first. Not surprisingly, director Les Mayfield (Encino Man, Flubber) and Morgan Creek Productions, the company behind Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, show little interest in fighting the power, because revisionism is a harder sell than nobility. As played with wholesome, non-threatening allure by Colin Farrell (Tigerland), James robs banks and dispatches enemies with a sly smile and an unimpeachable sense of justice. Yet he's also like a clean-cut varsity letterman, the kind of guy a beautiful-but-headstrong young woman (in this case, Ali Larter) could bring home to her parents. After the Civil War ends, James and his friends, soldiers in a partisan band of Confederates, return home to Liberty, Missouri, to tend to their respective family farms. When a railroad baron (Harris Yulin) seizes the deeds without their consent, James, his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht), and the Younger brothers (Scott Caan, Will McCormack, and Gregory Smith) join forces to reclaim their homestead and revitalize their bereft community. It's hard to believe that the real James-Younger gang was so altruistic, unless the filmmakers also accept the notion that oil tycoons can be considered philanthropists, just for giving a small portion of wealth back to the people they exploit. But then, nothing in American Outlaws rings with authenticity: The prairie backdrops are cardboard generic, the dialogue is loaded with anachronistic banter, and even a minor detail such as a railroad map looks like a prop from an Ed Wood movie. Intended as a casting call for the stars of tomorrow, the film doesn't risk tainting their image for truth's sake. If Mayfield is so bent on whitewashing history, he could have at least done it with panache.