AMERICAN OUTLAWS (2001)

   Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Gabriel Macht, Les Mayfield (director).
   Postmodern America is calling all myths to account, and when it comes to Westerns, the outlaw myths are all open for reinterpretation. Thus, American Outlawsreinterprets the Jesse James stories for a new generation, a generation brought up on MTV. Executive producer Jonathan A. Zimbert explains some of the film’s rationale on the film’s website: “Throughout history, outlaws have always been popular, particularly among young people who consider themselves outlaws, rebelling against the older establishment.... The James Gang is kind of like a rock and roll band out on the road on their first tour together. This is something today’s audience can relate to” (www.americanoutlaws.com). The film begins during the Civil War and portrays the ambivalence of most Missourians toward both sides of the war. When the James and Younger families return to Missouri after the war, they find trouble waiting. First, both families are targeted by Federal authorities because they fought on the “wrong” side. Then Cole Younger (Caan) is arrested and subject to be hanged. Thus, the friends become an outlaw gang and set out to free Cole. Jesse’s fiancee, Zee (Larter), proves an effective gang member, masterminding their first outlaw act. But the James brothers and the Youngers become sympathetic outlaws in American myth because they save the common people from greedy barons. The evil railroad owner, Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin), comes through Missouri, forcing farmers to sell their land to him and resorting to violence if they refuse. The only hope against U.S.-government backed greed and corruption is the new American outlaws. From Missouri the gang moves West, saving the weak and innocent and attacking the inhuman machine of American capitalism. But as time goes on, Jesse (Farrell) realizes he just wants to settle down with Zee and lead a normal domestic life. He is arrested in Florida on his honeymoon.
   This is the Jesse James for a new generation. Other versions of the legend have celebrated railroad moguls as the heroes fighting against ruthless outlaws. But postmodern audiences question older ideas of economic progress. The new Jesse James upholds the moral values of the 21st century while acknowledging older domestic values. Jesse, for example, refuses to kill except as a last resort. Zee refuses Jesse sex until after they are married. Jesse and Frank find satisfaction in murder or robbery merely for the thrill. The moral center of the film is the question of whether powerful, government-sanctioned greed and corruption justifies the response of the American outlaws. The film’s cult following was short lived, but its appeal to a young generation not brought up watching classic Westerns was significant. No doubt the superb performance by its cast of fashionably dressed young stars contributed to its success as well.
   See also ANTIMYTH WESTERNS; OUTLAWS.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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