Untrue West

He's cuddly, goofy and often a bore. Meet the new Jesse James.

On the lips of many moviegoers, the name Joel Schumacher is tantamount to blasphemy. Visions of a blue-skinned Arnold Schwarzenegger and a head-bobbing George Clooney in rubber nipples instantly come to mind, inducing shudders of revulsion and indicating an oft-held view that Mr. Schumacher epitomizes the worst American directing can offer.

Many folks, however, haven't actually seen Tigerland, Schumacher's bid for seriousness last fall. While not unanimously acclaimed by critics, most agreed that the low-budget Vietnam boot-camp movie did at least one thing well: It displayed for the whole world a star on the rise, a young Irishman named Colin Farrell, whose convincing American accent and charismatic lead performance landed him several big-ticket offers right away.

Group hug: Jesse James' gang wasn't just deadly--it was sexy.
Group hug: Jesse James' gang wasn't just deadly--it was sexy.

The first of those, American Outlaws, arrives in theaters this week, and it utterly vindicates Schumacher by showing Farrell to be something less than hot stuff when he's not actually given anything to work with. Turns out the director of Batman and Robin is less of a menace than the director of Flubber and Blue Streak, Les Mayfield, who's in charge here. American Outlaws, set in a parallel dimension Wild West in which cowboys have full unfettered access to modern-day gymnasiums, hair-care products and state-of-the-art dentistry, is a retelling of the story of Jesse James (Farrell, occasionally slipping from Southern drawl into Irish lilt) in which James never seems to kill anybody except in wartime and only robs folks who enjoy being robbed by celebrities.

Other than that, the movie follows the basic outline that may be familiar to western fans: Jesse James and his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) along with their friends Cole and Bob Younger (Scott Caan and Will McCormack) and Token Wise Native-American Guy (Nathaniel Arcand) are veterans of the Civil War, but because they were guerrillas and not formal soldiers, amnesty laws don't apply. When the new Union government decides to seize their family land on behalf of the railroad, the boys become the James-Younger gang and begin robbing banks that harbor railroad-company money. In our world, they also held up many a stagecoach and shot several civilians in the process, but remember, this is parallel earth we're talking about.

It's clear that much of the film is not intended to be taken seriously; in fact, some scenes play out so well as deadpan parody that you might think you've walked into Trey Parker's Cannibal: The Musical by mistake. And while some of the jokes are period-authentic--Frank makes a one-liner about the scientific method--there are many others that are not, notably Bob Younger throwing a hissy fit when his likeness is improperly rendered on a wanted poster, leading him to proclaim, "I'm feeling a little left out!" in mid-robbery, followed by an impromptu group therapy session.

And then there's the villain. Director Mayfield and screenwriter Roderick Taylor (Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, Part III: The Legend Continues) have chosen as their subject Allan Pinkerton, a Scotsman who was one of the founders of the Secret Service. He's played here by Timothy Dalton, whose beard and burr seem--perhaps as a nod to Dalton's brief tenure as James Bond--like a knowing parody of Sean Connery. And the character is written like a dated Bond villain, a Dr. Evil of the Old West who'd rather spend hours talking about his adversary than actually getting out there to kill him. Endless scenes of strategy sessions are depicted in which Pinkerton's bosses ask him why he doesn't simply go and gun Jesse down, to which he responds with something like, "I have to hunt this man; I have to get inside this man's mind," or, "Jesse and I are learning each other's moves, feeling out each other's paths" (actually, there's no evidence that Jesse gives him even a second thought until the moment when they finally meet).

All of which would be more fun if Mayfield had the guts to play the film as all-out parody, but he doesn't. So desperate are the filmmakers to create a "hip" western that they try to cram it with action sequences that aren't very exciting and refer to the James-Younger gang as "a rock and roll band" about 50 times in the press materials. There's even a title track by Moby, complete with DJ scratching for that anachronistic sound that seems to be all the rage right now (see also A Knight's Tale--preferably instead of this movie).

The fresh-faced cast isn't terribly good or bad--Farrell and company should be fun for women to look at, while Ali Larter, as Jesse's love interest, Zee Mimms, should satiate the fellas. Never mind that she's a blonde playing a historical figure noted for having dark hair. Terry O'Quinn and Kathy Bates show up in amusing supporting roles, while Ronny Cox is given very little to do as Zee's dad. Bottom line: If you haven't seen a western in a long time, and don't need no stinkin' masterpiece to satiate you, American Outlaws will probably do you fine. The rest of us can wait.

 
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