American Outlaws

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The intentions of “American Outlaws” are unclear. It is not, from what I gather, a particularly true account of the life of Jesse James. There are no characters, plot points or action sequences which have not already been created in other films. It is dumbly entertaining, but at this late point in the summer, I think audiences may have consumed all they can stand of inconsequential escapist fare. After all, how much popcorn can we eat?

Boyish, up-and-coming young actor Colin Farrell plays the notorious Missouri bank robber Jesse James. After a successful stint on the unsuccessful side of the Civil War, Jesse and his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) head home to Liberty, where their religious-freak mother (Kathy Bates) greets them with open arms and a farm that needs chores done. Jesse immediately starts courting Zee Mimms (Ali Larter), daughter of the town doctor, and life is good.

Then representatives of the railroad come to town, wanting to buy up everyone’s property. If the townsfolk don’t sell, the railroad will force them out. (“We’ll teach these podunks what happens when you challenge the righteousness of Progress,” says one fat-cat ominously.) Jesse and Frank stand up to them and rally the town; if this were a musical, a stirring song would go there. When the Jameses’ hot-headed cousin Cole Younger (Scott Caan) gets violent and is sentenced to hang, Jesse rescues him, turning the townsfolk vs. railroad battle into a full-blown war. The James boys and some Youngers form a band of merry men who rob banks and distribute the money to themselves and the poor folks who have been screwed by the railroad company.

This is essentially a “might makes right” movie, where the sharpest shooters with the most weapons win. It’s also an “outlaw with a heart of gold” movie: Jesse James is unapologetically the hero, and a likable one at that. Bank robber, sure, but nice guy.

The main villain is Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton), the security adviser to railroad magnate Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin). Pinkerton sounds a lot like Groundskeeper Willie, and Timothy Dalton is not done any favors by the script, which has him saying melodramatic things that remind me of how Sean Connery is portrayed on the “Saturday Night Live” celebrity “Jeopardy!” sketches. (“Nicely played,” he tells Jesse James with great caginess after losing a particular battle. He doesn’t say, “You’ve won this round, James,” but I’m sure he thinks it.)

While director Les Mayfield stays pretty close to the trappings of the Old West, there is clearly a 21st-century mentality at work. It may be the 1860s, but darned if the heroes don’t have as much firepower as their modern counterparts. They certainly pull off as many incredible “Die Hard” stunts as folks do in the 2000s, including a daring train escape that is as exciting as it is laughable.

This is a good-natured, stupid movie. I’m not sure how dumb it was supposed to be, but laughing at it — if not with it — is a good enough way to spend 94 minutes, as long as you’re not one of those snobs who likes his movies to make a lot of sense.

C (; PG-13, lots of cussin' and shootin'.)

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