If there exists a book called “Westerns for Dummies,” chances are you’d find a dog-eared copy of it in the home library of director Les Mayfield. The manufactured-to-the-point-of-lifelessness “American Outlaws,” Mayfield’s attempt to make an oater with appeal for Generation Y, is such a lifeless that it’s enough to turn the demographic off to the genre completely.
Given how Warner Bros. is burying this turkey in the dog days of summer, “American Outlaws” should have very little, if any, effect on the upward career trajectory of Irish “It Boy” Colin Farrell, who as Jesse James displays the same charisma he did as the only redeeming aspect of Joel Schumacher’s faux-Dogme-style Vietnam drama “Tigerland.” Yes, one of the “American Outlaws” of the title is that legendary bank robber James, whose gang with brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) and friend Cole Younger (Scott Caan) and his brothers take on a railroad company that wants to plow right through their family homes and farms. Powerful Rock Island Railroad head Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin) has the seemingly formidable resources of Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) at his disposal to protect his financial interests, but are they any match for the James-Younger gang?
Of course not. Producer James G. Robinson has said that “American Outlaws” is not so much based on the actual historical figure of Jesse James as it is his “myth.” Hence this Jesse, despite Farrell’s attempts to make a real character out of him, is a gunslinging Superman who is hardly fazed by a penetrating bullet wound and can escape from chains in a matter of seconds (one is almost led to think that this script had been on the shelf for a while, originally developed as a vehicle for WB’s one-time golden boy, Steven Seagal). The outcome of formula pictures such as these are never in doubt, but Mayfield and writers Roderick Taylor and John Rogers make no real effort to manufacture any sort of suspense.
That’s likely because they were too busy making strained attempts to make this western “relevant” to today’s younger audience. Part of the scheme is to add generous doses of humor, but the fact that one of the more memorable jokes revolves around why the gang is called “James-Younger” instead of “Younger-James” (if it were called the latter, then people would be looking for an “Older James” gang–ha ha ha) gives an indication of how rough this ride is. Far funnier are the laughably earnest attempts at emotion, from the James brothers’ relationship with their religious mother (Kathy Bates, having one hell of an embarrassing week with the simultaneous release of this and “Rat Race”) and Jesse’s sappy romance with childhood friend Zee (Ali Larter in a thankless role).
The lowest-common-denominator approach to “American Outlaws” (which even extends to the dialogue; Pinkerton actually uses the expression “pissed off” at one point) would have been a little more forgivable if the shoot-’em-up scenes delivered, but Mayfield, whose oh-so-qualified résumé includes “Encino Man” and “Flubber,” is still of the mind that having guys crash through glass windows is inherently exciting. But if that is your idea of an adrenaline rush, then by all means check out “American Outlaws.”