A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Westerns dominated the box office, as inconceivable as that may be for certain Gen-Y'ers. Every few years, a truly exceptional effort to revive the genre is released to critical and financial success, a slew of half-thought-out flicks are shat out to ride its coattails, then the press is unindated with articles decrying the death of the Western. That is, of course, until the cycle begins anew. Apparently at some unspecified point in the past few years, it dawned upon someone of considerable power and influence that gearing Westerns towards the TRL set would be a stunning idea. Dimension Films made a sizeable investment, plunking $30 million and a star-studded cast (including my beloved Rachael Leigh Cook) into Texas Rangers. The result was a film so bad that it was unceremoniously
shelved for a couple of years, and though the film at long last limped into theaters earlier this month, it was met with an unparalleled 0% composite 'Cream of the Crop' rating at Rotten Tomatoes and brought in an astonishing 0.8% of its budget over the course of its opening weekend. Über-producers Morgan Creek had to be aware of the behind-the-scenes hijinks surrounding the then-unreleased Texas Rangers last year, but apparently they had enough moxy to give their own teen-fueled Western the green light. American Outlaws wasn't quite the unilateral disappointment Rangers turned out to be, but its domestic gross of $13.2 million still fell short of Morgan Creek's expectations, not to mention its $35 million budget. The critical reception wasn't a marked improvement either, considering its paltry Cream of the Crop rating of 4%. Whether or not American Outlaws will be better received upon its inevitable video/DVD release remains to be seen, but my conspiracy-obsessed mind can't help but wonder if Dimension's release of Texas Rangers to theaters this close to Outlaws hitting video store shelves is a happy coincidence or sabotage of some variety. Hmmm...
Jesse James doesn't like railroads. Nope, James decides it's his job to keep the Old West elite, and his distaste increases when an unrelenting railroad baron decides to speed up the construction process by blowing up any farms that stand in the way of progress. After one of these attacks leaves James' ma scattered about a quarter-mile radius (not really, but let me have my fantasies), the enraged outlaw and grizzled buddy Cole Younger assemble the gruffest bunch of photogenic twenty-somethings in arms' reach to battle back the 'road. The idea is to knock over oodles of banks and trot off with sacks o' railroad cash, so that maybe they'll steer the railways elsewhere. It's not a very well-thought-out plan, and the notorious gang is relentlessly pursued. Emotional scenes with Jesse's girl (Ali Larter) and violent shoot-outs follow, rarely diverting from the well-tread path of the neo-Western formula.
The tag line "This much fun can't be legal" would seem to have little basis in reality. American Outlaws might've been moderately more entertaining if it not played quite so seriously. Perhaps if the producers had opted instead for infectious, anachronistic fun a la A Knight's Tale instead of...well, the painfully anachronistic dialogue from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Though hardly horrendous or unwatchable, I found little of interest in American Outlaws. The bank robberies, once underway, are extremely repetitive. Director Les Mayfield notes on the commentary track that star Scott Caan didn't want any "wimps" in the cast, though the rough-'n'-tumble gang winds up closer to the bunch from American Pie dumped out west than the robbers who had an indelible effect on how the Old West was perceived. I half-expected Colin Farrel to break out at any given moment into a meticulously choreographed dance number over a layer of keyboards and a stale Swedish pop-beat. Ali Larter, making her third appearance on the big screen this year, is given precious little to do other than stand around and look cute. In that, she's fairly successful, despite what her unappealing sneer on the video cover might indicate. I seem to recall there being at least a couple of different pieces of poster art for American Outlaws -- was this deemed the best of the lot? History buffs, a group I would never claim to be a part of, will be frustrated by how quick and loosely American Outlaws plays with the facts, changing the motivations of characters entirely and reshaping events for the greatest dramatic effect. There are so many far superior Westerns out there, some even with a still-bankable cast, that I find it near-impossible to find much of anything about American Outlaws deserving of a recommendation.
Video: I'm generally somewhat apprehensive about reviewing discs of recently-released films, simply because I enjoy ranting at length about video quality. That sort of nitpicking has become increasingly difficult with the gorgeous discs that studios are now churning out at a regular rate for films trotting merrily out of theaters. Warner in particular has consistently raised the bar with the jaw-dropping transfers on DVDs like The Replacements and Swordfish. I was expecting much of the same from American Outlaws, and although it would be a gross exaggeration to say that I'm disappointed by the 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation, this disc does fall significantly short of what I've come to expect nowadays. The image as a whole strikes me as flat and two-dimensional, and the contrast seems to have been bumped to an
exceedingly high level. Detail is unremarkable, perhaps as a direct result of the unnecessary sharpening. Haloing is also evident around particularly high-contrast areas. Black levels are rock solid, though, and the muted color palette seems to be well-rendered. American Outlaws' gritty appearance is due in large part to the entirely intentional thin veil of grain, and no print flaws or speckling caught my eye. This isn't by any means a poor presentation, but it doesn't look like the handiwork of one of the best players in the DVD game today. The case lists 'director approved transfer' among the "Sharpshooting DVD Player Special Features", so perhaps this is precisely what Les Mayfield was aiming towards, or maybe this sort of nastiness was added at the compression stage. Out of curiosity, I skimmed a few reviews at other DVD sites, and everyone else lavished the visuals of this disc with praise. There's always the likelihood that it's just me, but I'd be very curious in hearing if anyone else feels the same way I do about this disc. Either way, please drop me a line and let me know what your feelings are.
Audio: American Outlaws features a DTS 5.1 track, a true rarity from Warner. Apparently most DVD review sites didn't bother with the accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which features three distinct drop-outs. The first occurs just before the 40 minute mark, where the word "safe" disappears entirely from a line of dialogue, and a similarly blatant drop-out occurs during the end credits, around 1:33:39. These aren't subtle in the slightest, and I'm amazed these weren't picked up on whatever quality control Warner utilizes. A third drop-out mentioned on another message board is reported to occur at the 1:19:53, with "Oh, you're..." absent from a sentence. If this is an actual drop-out, it's not occuring in the same painfully noticeable way as the other two I've mentioned, though that line does seem to have been truncated in some fashion. Before
anyone attacks my system or remarks that my particular disc must be a lemon, these drop-outs have been confirmed by several owners of the disc using far higher-end equipment than I can claim to possess. These flaws, I'm told, are not present on the DTS track. My receiver isn't DTS-capable, so I'm presently unable to verify.
Those flaws are quite a disappointment, since otherwise, this Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is easily among the best I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The active, aggressive mix keeps activity in the surrounds for nearly the entire duration of the film, though amazingly manages to avoid the unnatural, gimmicky feel that often accompanies these MTV-style romps. My den isn't terribly large, but this track is so enveloping and creates such an expansive soundscape that the room seems to nearly quadruple in size. The clarity of music smattered throughout is at times stunning, with a rich, crisp quality booming from every channel. The score makes extensive use of the LFE channel, and my subwoofer rarely seemed to remain idle for more than a couple of seconds. Despite the total lack of semiautomatic weapons and twenty megaton explosions, the low-end gets a far
greater workout than I could ever have anticipated. I'd be sorely tempted to slap a "reference quality" label on this disc if not for the inexcusable drop-outs in the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. I'd imagine the majority out there have DTS decoders handy and have nothing to worry about, but those in the same boat I am should weigh these issues before slapping down twenty bucks for this DVD.
Supplements: The commentary track on this DVD release of American Outlaws features director Les Mayfield, editor Michael Tronick, and co-writer John Rogers. It's infinitely more entertaining than the movie itself, offering an unmerciless barrage of technical notes, quips, and production anecdotes. Dominated by Mayfield and his continual fielding of questions, the incredibly detailed discussion includes casting, where stuntmen hanging in the background rank on the totem pole, the process of storyboarding, the three-digit temperatures encountered during filming, and far too many other highlights to fully list. There are some strange audio quirks that crop up periodically, having the same sort of digital squeals encountered when downloading an mp3 from a poorly-ripped CD.
There are a pair of deleted scenes, neither offering optional commentary nor any sort of video introduction providing any details as to why they were removed from the final cut. The four featurettes total a hefty 25 minutes in length, taking a thorough peek at set design, the 'cowboy camp' referenced in the commentary, wardrobe, and a more traditional look behind the scenes. Other DVD mainstays rear their head on this disc, ranging from conceptual art, a gallery of trailers and television spots, a respectably large collection of stills, detailed cast/crew filmographies, a DVD-ROM screenplay, and trailers for other Morgan Creek titles.
Conclusion: American Outlaws failed to inspire any emotions whatsoever from me, and as I've noted in previous reviews, I'd rather be disgusted by a movie than face total indifference. Perhaps a modicum of entertainment value could be squeezed out of a popcorn rental, but American Outlaws didn't strike me as having enough in the way of replay value to warrant dropping twenty dollars on a sight-unseen purchase. Those lacking DTS capability may be gunshy about adding this disc to their collection in the hope that future pressings may clear up the audio drop-outs in the Dolby Digital 5.1 track. For anyone wholly unable to resist the temptation to give American Outlaws a spin, make sure to rent it long enough to sit through the worthwhile commentary. Rent it.