Returning to their hometown in Missouri in the days following the end of the Civil War, former Confederate guerrillas Jesse James (Colin Farrell) and Cole Younger (Scott Caan) are disgusted to discover that the railroad companies are trying to take over everyone’s land. After Cole’s cousin and Jesse’s mother are killed by railway thugs, Jesse and Cole take revenge by forming the James/Younger Gang and robbing banks. Soon, the members of the James/Younger Gang become folk heroes and the railroad company resorts to bringing in Alan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) to track the outlaws down. However, even as they try to remain out of the clutches of Pinkerton’s men, there is growing dissension in the ranks of the James/Younger Gang. Cole feels like Jesse doesn’t respect his opinions while Jesse is falling in love with Zee (Ali Larter) and it’s hard to court a girl when you’re constantly having to hide out from Alan Pinkertson. Meanwhile, the other members of the gang wonder why their wanted posters never look as good as Jesse’s and Cole’s.
There have been many movies made about the James/Younger Gang and this is certainly one of them. What sets this telling apart from other versions of this familiar tale is that American Outlaws is the feel-good version of the story. Bob and Charley Ford are nowhere to be seen in American Outlaws and Jesse James doesn’t get shot in the back while straightening a picture. This approach misses the point of what makes the legend of Jesse James so memorable in the first place. Jesse James was the greatest outlaw in the west but he was ultimately taken down by a coward who shot him in the back. Take out that part of the story and the story loses all of its power. Jesse James just becomes another outlaw.
In real life, the James/Younger Gang were reportedly a rough group of outlaws who didn’t hesitate when it came to killing. In American Outlaws, they come across more like a boy band with a side hustle robbing banks. Jesse is the soulful leader, Cole is the rebel, and the other members of the gang are the interchangeable backup vocalists. There’s been many good and even great films made about the James/Younger Game. American Outlaws is not one of them. For a good movie about the life and times of Jesse James and his associates, I would suggest checking out Walter Hill’s The Long Riders or Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.