It's not always pleasant watching Hollywood reimagine old genres. Sometimes it produces great entertainment (consider what "Sixth Sense" did for horror) and sometimes it gets embarrassing (watch "A Knight's Tale" butcher the costume period romance).
But the oldest American film genre of all, the Western, seems tough enough to stand up to almost anything. Indeed, even "Wild Wild West" and "Shanghai Noon" can't shake the durability of the flinty-eyed loner facing down the well-backed bully, the aw-shucks underdog rising to confront impossible odds or the knight-errant of the plains aimin' to get a spread of his own.
The beauty of the latest, "American Outlaws," lies in its snappy almost-period dialogue and its terrific cast of fresh faces. Chief among those faces is Irish actor Colin Farrell, as the film's hero, famed outlaw Jesse James. Farrell, a lead performer in Joel Schumacher's Vietnam-era boot-camp ensemble drama "Tigerland," leads a cast of almost-unknowns through a series of set-piece situations that form virtually a list of classic Western scenes.
We open with Jesse James as war hero, ignoring personal danger to charge a Yankee ambush to save his comrades. And here's Jesse James at his mother's burned-out farm, pledging revenge against the ruthless railroad baron (Harris Yulin). There's Jesse James forming his famous gang with his Shakespeare-spouting brother Frank (Gabriel Macht), his impulsive cousin Cole Younger (Scott Caan), his celebrity-seeking cousin Bob Younger (Will McCormack) and his underaged cousin Jim Younger (Gregory Smith). And how's about a tongue-tied Jesse James proposing marriage to his flaxen-haired childhood playmate Zee Mims (Ali Larter), who later becomes his stout-hearted rescuer.
John Ford might have flinched, but only at their snappy repartee, not at the "can-do, go-to-hell and let's ride!" spirit that infuses the screenplay. The script, from former recording artist Roderick Taylor ("Star Chamber") and former stand-up comic John Rogers (and ex-TV writer for "Cosby"), crackles with the sort of one-liners and we're-all-pals bonhomie that younger viewers so admire.
Indeed, all those bright young actors make for a veritable chorus line of hunky bad-good guys suitable for decorating any 14-year-old's bedroom wall. Director Les Mayfield ("Blue Streak," the Robin Williams version of "The Absent-Minded Professor") adds an impressive series of gee-whiz stunts which, even if they're physically impossible, certainly invigorate the visuals. Every good hero needs a nemesis, and Jesse gets three -- leering Terry O'Quinn as an evil yes-man, squinting Yulin as a heartless capitalist and growling Timothy Dalton as hired gun Allan Pinkerton. Once the James-Younger Gang (better than, gang members note, the Younger-James Gang because no one then asks about the older James gang) gets formed, they're off on a Robin Hood-esque bank-robbing spree designed to undercut them dirty railroad developers.
While Taylor-Rogers give the gang a '90s sensibility, they wisely avoid giving them '90s expressions. With few exceptions, these characters stick to 1860s-era patois, which lends an air of authenticity. You won't see any 1950s angst (remember tortured Paul Newman as "The Left-Handed Gun"?) or 1960s revisionist "Dirty Little Billy" metaphors. Instead, this Western about good-hearted boys turned bad (without bothering with their bloody deaths, as in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") acts like it never heard of Sergio Leone.
As perhaps the Western was all along, it's all for fun.