"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Frank and Jesse (Trimark, 1995) & American Outlaws (Warner Bros, 2001)

Jesse James at the turn of the century: two modern versions

Frank and Jesse (Trimark, 1995)

Another chapter was added to the Book of Jesse in the 1990s, Frank and Jesse (1995), in which Jesse was impersonated by Rob Lowe. (There was also Purgatory in 1999 but that is reviewed elsewhere, so click the link if you are interested).

Frank and Jesse is frankly a pretty tired and clichéd telling of the tale. Frank and Jesse’s Pappy is murdered because the railroad wants his property so the boys vow vengeance and start robbing businesses owned by the railways. Really, this won’t do in 1995. We should have got past that. Firstly, it is not true and secondly it is simplistic and thirdly it’s been done to death.

The film goes for a fashionable 90s dark look (though Unforgiven it ain’t) and for slight weirdness. There are lines like, “I know I could kill you. I’m just not convinced you’d stay dead.”

The acting is average at best and you could not say that any of the principals are convincing. Rob Lowe plays a one-dimensional Jesse, Bill Paxton is a surprisingly boring Frank, and country singer Randy Travis plays a flat Cole Younger, who suddenly starts narrating in the last reel for some odd reason.

The screenplay is poor. It’s as if the writer suddenly remembered that Frank and Jesse were supposed to have fallen out, so half way through the movie he cut in a scene in which Jesse shouts at Frank and pulls a gun on him, then it’s never mentioned again. It’s either bad writing or directing (Robert Boris, who did both) or bad editing (Christopher Greenbury) - or all three.

The film does at least look at the help the murderers got from the local population a bit more than some movies and does make the James gang out to be fairly ordinary guys rather than dashing superheroes, so that’s a plus. But it’s still clearly on the side of the poor, put-upon underdog Jameses, and Pinkerton (William Atherton) is the evil, implacable Northern corporate persecutor.

The very nasty Archie Clements, Bloody Bill Anderson’s scalper in chief who was so admired by Jesse and whom Jesse followed down to Texas, becomes just another James gang member.

Frank is the real author of the letters to the papers in Jesse’s name, which seems implausible to say the least. There’s no John Newman Edwards (there’s a reporter named Zack Murphy instead). Frank and Jesse’s stepfather is “Ruben Samuels” (John Stiritz) and their mother (Mari Askew) is once again “Ma James”. There’s some absurdity about the guerrillas being forced to take the oath of allegiance at gunpoint, as if it were Josey Wales or something. The usual inventions and nonsense, in fact.

Some of the Walt Lloyd cinematography is attractive (pleasant Arkansas locations standing in for Missouri) and the movie isn’t cheap or studio-bound. It just needed better directing, writing, editing and acting, that’s all.

Really, you’ve seen it all before. And done better.

American Outlaws (Warner Bros, 2001)

Warner Brothers’ American Outlaws came out in 2001, directed by Les Mayfield, his only Western (it shows, but he was born in New Mexico so I forgive him) and written by Roderick Taylor, an academic and poet, and John Rogers, a physics student and comedian (who weren’t so I don’t).
No, bad is still bad actually, as far as movies go

It didn’t pay for itself at the box office and received dismal reviews, the critics saying it was just a Young Guns rip-off, it was childish, it was a travesty historically and had no sense of time or place. I don’t know about the critics but personally, I think that it was just a Young Guns rip-off, it was childish, it was a travesty historically and had no sense of time or place.

It’s as if it was made by people who had never read anything about Jesse James and never seen any of the movies. They aimed at the juvenile market with one-line quips and stunts. I imagine them saying over their cappuccinos,
“Let’s do for Jesse James what Fox did for Billy the Kid!”
“Great idea! We’ll have popular young comedy/action stars as Jesse and Frank, an Irishman and a New Yorker, who know nothing at all about Westerns. They’ll fit in well.”
Authentic, huh
Rotten Tomatoes says: “With corny dialogue, revisionist history, anachronistic music, and a generically attractive cast, American Outlaws is a sanitized, teenybopper version of Jesse James.”


The trailer (external link) will give you the idea. Saves you having to watch the movie. You can read the deathless prose of the script here (also external) if you’ve a mind to, which I doubt.

Kathy Bates hams it up dreadfully as “Ma James” while erstwhile James Bond Timothy Dalton plays Pinkerton with a cod Scottish accent. Comedy star Ali Larter is eye-candy as a babe Zee with highlights (if you are still allowed to say babe). (Or eye-candy). Various popular young actors are bratpack James gang members. Marc Savlov in The Austin Chronicle says they are “fresh-faced up-and-comers sporting pearly whites so dazzling the reflected glare could bring down the entire Texas Air National Guard.” None of these actors had been in Westerns. We do get Harris Yulin (Wyatt Earp in Doc) as the inevitable evil railroad baron, so that’s something, I suppose.

It was shot in Texas. They had a train. The music (Trevor Rabin) is quite ghastly.
Been there, done that

Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times said, “Imagine the cast of American Pie given a camera, lots of money, costumes and horses, and told to act serious and pretend to be cowboys, and this is what you might get.”

Oh, that’s enough about this dog.


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