October 2, 2007

"American Outlaws" - Jesse James Week at iSteve

Having just watched and read "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," I thought it time to post on the web my August 2001 review for UPI of the last Jesse James movie, the very different "American Outlaws."

"American Outlaws" - a good-humored retelling of the Jesse James legend - is another of 2001's long string of movies that fall in between not-so-hot and not-so-bad. It is in the grand tradition of the cowboy Western. In other words, "American Outlaws" is completely unoriginal, but at least it steals from good films like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

After defeating more heavily armed Union bluecoats in a final skirmish of the Civil War, Quantrill's Raiders, a Confederate guerilla army, disband. The handsome James brothers and their cousins, the Younger brothers, head home to their Missouri Ozark farms. There, they find the Federal Army and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in league with a carpetbagging Northern railroad intent on stealing their land.

And besides, as Cole Younger points out, the war showed them that raiding and killing was a lot more exciting than plowing. So, off our heroes ride to wreak vengeance on the Union's trains and banks, aided by the local farmers with whom they prudently share their loot.

High school boys will enjoy the bang-bang boom-boom action. Their dates will be all aquiver over the cute young desperadoes. As Jesse, dark-eyed Colin Farrell ("Tigerland") lives up to at least some of the hype that says he's Hollywood's Next Big Thing. As Cole Younger, curly-haired Scott Caan delivers a fine impression of his father, James Caan.

Upper middle class parents probably won't mind taking their older kids to "American Outlaws." It's a mild PG-13, with only a few barnyard expletives. The scenes of Jesse courting his future wife Zerelda are quite innocent and rather charming.

On the other hand, if you live in a tough neighborhood where being a gun-totin' outlaw might strike your son as a promising career path, watch out. Much of America's culture war is fought between downscale conservative parents who rightly want a more moralistic society to help them raise their at-risk children versus upscale liberal parents who rightly assume that pop cultures' amoral examples probably won't ruin their expensively sheltered kids.

Grownups will find Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates' performance as the James boys' Jesus-loving Yankee-hating Ma to be terrific (as usual), but too brief. In contrast, Timothy Dalton (a former James Bond) has a potentially meaty role as Jesse's nemesis, the legendary Allen Pinkerton who ran Abraham Lincoln's spy service. The swashbuckling Shakespearean actor provides a formidable presence, until he opens his mouth. Then, the distinctly sub-Shakespearean dialogue leaves him merely chewing the scenery.

Although the moviemakers cheerfully admit that they filmed the romanticized legend rather than the facts, "American Outlaws" is remarkably close to honest about how much Jesse James' crime spree was motivated by his hatred of the victorious Union.

Most historical movies these days feature implausible minority characters, such as the perplexing appearance of Morgan Freeman in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." In contrast, "American Outlaws" shows no blacks at all, even though the real-life James family owned four slaves. The presence of ex-slaves in the movie would have raised doubts about the purity of our heroes' Confederate cause. In fact, the James Gang boasts the only nonwhite character in the film, Comanche Tom, who, oddly enough, did indeed integrate the real-life band of brigands.

This kind of pro-Confederate costume drama was common until the Civil Rights era, when the slaves' point of view finally began to be considered. In the last few years, this trend has gone much farther as the great and the good have set about to demonize the Confederate Battle Flag and other symbols of white Southerners' pride in their rebel ancestors. "American Outlaws" might be betting that the growing Southern backlash will pay off at the box office.

Or, the filmmakers may have had to portray Jesse as a heroic Confederate freedom fighter because otherwise he would appear to be just a vicious crook. In reality, he was both. The best aspect of "American Outlaws" is that it's fairly perceptive about how murky is the line between guerilla and gangster.

The Sicilian Mafia, for example, probably grew out of patriotic underground resistance to French invaders. Further, our former friends in the Kosovo Liberation Army are today trying to dismantle our ally Macedonia in order to monopolize in a wider domain the venerable Albanian specialties of smuggling, fencing, and pimping. Perhaps if our State Department could have watched "American Outlaws" before deciding to go to war on behalf of the KLA "freedom fighters" in 1999, they wouldn't have been so cruelly disillusioned in 2001 when the KLA turned out to be just another James Gang.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Ibrahim Nur said...

Steve, your chronicles of 'bio-diversity' are far more interesting than your movie reviews. I'm not sure if anyone eagerly comes to your blog curious about your opinion regarding the latest cinema. We can always frequent Rottentomatoes.com to get the critical reaction to a movie. I'll guarentee you that all isteve readers groan at the prospect of having to scroll down fast yet again when confroted with your movie reviews. Give us more articles and ruminations on IQ and the Race question! You know that's why we're all really here. =D

Anonymous said...

I could not disagree more with Ibrahim, Steve.

Most of the time, not always, I find your reviews insightful, particularly on the culture wars.

I think that's a good point -- Hollywood is filled with upper class sheltered people who can't understand their audience. Indeed, success in Hollywood seems not to be based on how much money a movie makes, but how well connected an actor, director, writer etc. is with a social/patronage network.

Which probably explains why most Hollywood movies suck.

turkey said...

I like them. To wit:

1) They are add-ins here. They are not appearing in lieu of other stuff, it's this or additional silence.

2) They usually have a critical point of view informed by whatever evolutionary conservatism is called these days. That makes them genuine Sailer content™.

3) They provide very little traction for neocon astroturfers, and those guys need a rest from staring at RSS feeds all day.

simon newman said...

I also disagree with Ibrahim, I enjoy most of the movie reviews, like this one they often use the movie to make interesting points about human nature and our current society.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if our State Department could have watched "American Outlaws" before deciding to go to war on behalf of the KLA "freedom fighters" in 1999, they wouldn't have been so cruelly disillusioned in 2001 when the KLA turned out to be just another James Gang.

Amazing, you really do relate everything back to some historical event. Although I don't know that you are sincere in your depictions of the evil yankee carpetbaggers and such, I would actually see this movie based on your review.

Ali said...

I like them. They provide an atypical perspective.

David said...

Steve, your reviews are damn good, period. Many of your best observations are offered in the course of your very entertainingly describing the latest work of entertainment. You clearly enjoy writing them, which makes them a joy to read.

Anonymous said...

Want to get a neo-Confederate's back up pronto? Just mention that the Civil War had something to do with, um, slavery. The feces will hit the fan faster than you can say Stonewall Jackson!

PRCalDude said...

Actually, Steve, the term 'mafia' comes from the Arabic word for 'refuge', and started as a response to Islamic dominance in Sicily.

Anonymous said...

The family of Jesse James have posted their own reviews of both "The Assassination of Jesse James..." and their previous review of "American Outlaws" on their family web site, Stray Leaves:


tommy said...

The Mafia grew neither out of resistance to Islam or to French invaders. The Mafia isn't that old at all. They started out as enforcers for the landowning classes in Sicily just a few centuries ago. These other stories of their origin are nothing but myths, many of them perpetuated by members of the Mafia themselves. I'm particularly amused by a favorite story among mobsters that claims the name "Mafia" is an acronym of the phrase "Morte Alla Franciese Italia Annella" or "Death to the French is Italy's Cry" that a Sicilian woman is said to have screamed out after her daughter was raped by French soldiers. The local guidos then had to spring into action to avenge this heinous crime, so the story goes. It's a good chuckle.