American Outlaws

American Outlaws (2001)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Ali Larter, Scott Caan, Colin Farrell
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots, Still Gallery, Storyboards, Production Art, Cast & Crew

The popularity of different film genres can ebb and flow over the years, and the western is a perfect example of this. While westerns we’re everywhere in the 50s, 60, and 70s (that includes the big screen and on television), their attraction begin to wane in the 80s and there have been only a handful of successful westerns in the last two decades ("The Unforgiven" being a great example.) But, Hollywood is every confident that they can introduce an old product to a new audience, which brings us the newly released "American Outlaws", a western aimed squarely at a younger crowd who probably aren’t familiar with any of the classics of the genre.

"American Outlaws" is a new telling of the legend of Jesse James and his gang of outlaws. Our story opens in 1865, at the closing of the Civil War. Jesse James (Colin Farrell), his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht), Cole Younger (Scott Caan), and his brothers, have been fighting the Union Army as a band of confederate raiders. Now that the war is done, they return home to Liberty, Kansas to begin their lives anew, only to find that the town is being oppressed by a railroad company who is bullying local farmers into selling their land. Once the James farm has been threatened, and Cole has been arrested for assaulting representatives of the railway, Jesse, Frank, and their friends decide to take action.

Once their plan has been carried out, Jesse and his gang are branded outlaws. They decided that the best way to hurt the railroad company will be to cut off their supply of cash and supplies. Therefore, they begin robbing banks, thus beginning the James-Younger gangs infamous career. As the gang goes from bank to bank, taking more of the company’s money, railroad baron Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin) assigns Detective Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) to find and stop the gang. As his band of troublemakers becomes more and more infamous, Jesse can only think of returning to Liberty to be with his true love, Zee (Ali Larter).

Gaugeing the quality of "American Outlaws" is a tricky thing. Taken on its own merits, the film isn’t bad at all. Director Les Mayfield keeps things moving along at a very nice pace, and the film is never boring. The story is concise and linear and there aren’t any giant plot-holes. It’s obvious that a great deal of care was taken to recreate the western clothing and buildings. Colin Farrell is very good as the brash, yet honorable Jesse, and Gabriel Macht (who bares a striking resemblance to country singer Toby Keith) is excellent as the wise Frank. And while Timothy Dalton’s neckbeard was really creeping me out, his turn as the complicated Pinkerton adds a touch of class to the film. Also, Kathy Bates and Ronny Cox are very good in small roles.

Yet, "American Outlaws" will only truly appeal to those who have never seen a western before. The film pulls out every single cliché of westerns and the story holds few surprises. Horses stampeded, people are thrown through saloon windows, there are shootouts, and a fight on a train — things which we’ve seen in countless other films. Perhaps the film’s worst sin is the character whose death is so telegraphed that he might as well have been wearing a shirt, reading "Dead Man". Granted, "American Outlaws" stages all of these hackneyed elements in a slick and competent way, but the film will seem very shallow to anyone who seen a cowboy movie.

"American Outlaws" rides onto DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and has been <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. The image is fine for the most part, but it does present some interesting shifts in quality. In the early scenes, there is a noticeable amount of grain anytime a bright, blue sky is shown. However, this grain is less conspicuous as the film progresses. Otherwise, the image is very sharp and clear, showing no defects from the source print. The muted color scheme of the picture takes some getting used to, but the transfer has done justice to this palette and the darks do not bleed into the lighter colors. No distracting artifacting elements are present and there is only the slightest amount of distinguishable edge enhancement on the disc.

The audio on the "American Outlaws" DVD is equally impressive, as we are treated to two quality audio tracks. Both the <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 track and the <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 track offer superior sound. We get clean dialogue with no hissing or distortion. The surround sound effects on these tracks are awesome, displaying explosions, horses, and rushing water in every speaker. The amount of bass response is great as well, adding depth to the explosions. It must be noted that there were two instances of audio drop-out on the Dolby Digital track which weren’t present on the DTS track. The soundfield is slightly wider on the DTS, but both tracks sound fantastic.

This DVD comes complete with a whole posse of extra features. First off, we have an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring director Les Mayfield, co-writer John Rogers, and editor Michael Tronick. This is a fun and laid-back chat, as the trio discuss the fun times and hot weather which occurred during the shooting of the film. Also, they talk about the task of bringing an American icon to the screen. With a nice mixture of anecdote and tech-talk, this is a solid commentary.

For those interested in the making of "American Outlaws", this DVD contains many extras. First, we have "The Making of ’American Outlaws’", a 9-minute featurette offering behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews. Next is the 6-minute "Creating the Old West", which focuses on the production design that went into creating the authentic sets and buildings. Third, there is "How to be an Outlaw", a 5-minute short which shows the stars attending "cowboy camp" to learn to ride and shoot. Lastly, we have "Costuming the Cowboys", another 5-minute piece, which offers stills and costume concept drawings with narration by costume designer Luke Reichle. This behind-the-scenes section also contains a still gallery with 28 location pictures. The DVD also contains an artwork section, which contains blueprints, storyboards, and costume designs drawings.

There are two deleted scenes on this disc, which oddly enough, both come from the same section of the film. The publicity gallery contains the theatrical teaser, theatrical trailer, and four TV spots. On top of these sneaks, there is yet another still gallery which offers some 50 images. Rounding out the extras is a Cast & Crew section, and for once, Warner Home Video offers bios for all of the main cast & crew and not just one or two select individuals.

"American Outlaws" is a competent, but unoriginal western. The film is good fun, but don’t expect anything new or earth-shaking. The DVD contains a nice transfer, with a rich and robust audio track. The DVD is full of extras and should satisfy anyone wanting further info on this film. "American Outlaws" is OK, but it’s not worth going to jail over.