Judge Bill Gibron feels like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford.
Outlaws. Rebels. Heroes.
When you consider writer/director Fred Olen Ray (if you ever do, that is), a standard oater is perhaps the last thing you imagine this b-movie schlock meister producing. Instead, films like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Evil Toons, Biohazard, and Inner Sanctum immediately come to mind. Or perhaps you enjoy his softcore porn romps featuring actual XXX film stars with titles such as The Ghost in the Tiny Bikini, Tarzeena: Jiggle in the Jungle, or Voodoo Dollz: Lust Potion #9. In this case, however, we are dealing with a perplexing Fred Olen Ray, an attempted mainstream moviemaker taking on one of the Wild Wild West's biggest legends. While the director has gone "normal" before (see such works as An Accidental Christmas, Invisible Mom, and Little Miss Magic), his only other horse opera credits appear to be 1997's The Shooter. So there is an inherent interest factor in watching a man known for gore, gratuity, and grindhouse ideals play it straight. Unfortunately, the results are lukewarm at best.
When a US Army convoy carrying the payroll in gold is hijacked by the James Gang—including Jesse (George Stult, 7th Heaven), older brother Frank (Tim Abell, Soldier of Fortune), and angry Ed Bass (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator), among others—Federal Marshall Kane (Peter Fonda, Easy Rider) sends his best deputy, Burdette (Anthony Tyler Quinn, Boy Meets World), after them. Trailing them across the Midwest, the lawman soon discovers that the outlaws have the safety—and the sympathies—of the local population. Shot during the initial altercation, Jesse gets help from a kindly preacher (Ian Patrick Williams, King of the Ants) and his daughter, Mary (Lauren Eckstrom, American Dreams). With Burdette on their back, all paths lead to a little town called Gila Wells. There, the boys will take on the authorities, kooky ancillary characters, and some turncoat members of their own group.
The most interesting aspect of American Bandits—aside from Ray's involvement—is the perspective it takes on the subject at hand. While Frank and Jesse James are historically considered villains and bad guys, this film gives them a motive—one even missed by the overlong Brad Pitt epic from a few years back. According to Bandits, Frank and Jesse's actions were in direct response to the end of the Civil War. As members of the losing South, they channeled their anger at the North and turned it into a continuing crime spree. The argument? They are merely taking back what the Yanks had wrongly taken from them. Their means? Lots of gunplay and dead bodies. Bandits emphasizes this point over and over again: in the opening shoot out with Union soldiers protecting the payroll; with a preacher whose delicate daughter becomes a co-conspirator (and concubine) of Jesse's; whenever cameo "star" Fonda discusses the case with his deputy Quinn; during the climatic cat and mouse game in the old ghost town of Gila Wells.
Clearly, the new perspective on the boys is all Bandits really offers. The rest is like an educational film that plays as part of a National Park or historical site's guided tour. While the acting is acceptable (only outsider icon Combs shines as a cantankerous member of the James gang), the two leads bring nothing new to their historic personas. In particular, Stult's Jesse resembles Pitt in everything—even down to the frothy facial hair. Fonda sleepwalks through his role, while Williams' preacher is the only passionate member of the ancillary cast. The locations look lovely (if a little too Six Gun territorial) and everything feels almost authentic. But with recent examples of the genre like 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa arguing for the film type's continuing viability, American Bandits feels flat and uninvolving. While the information is new (or at least so to the untrained James novice), the way in which it is presented is as old as the Hollywood serial.
Released on Blu-ray by E1 Entertainment, the 1080p image of American Bandits is decent, if far from high definition. Even the most advanced technological tweaking can't make a low budget indie effort look like a three dimensional tour of the past. There are excellent colors, some defining detail, and a nice professional polish to the print. Don't expect reference quality with the final image and you'll be all right. As for the sound, we are treated to a DTS-HD Master Audio track that is directional and quite ambient. While much of the atmosphere is washed out by the lack of the solid score, the few gunfights offered crash across the speakers in solid audio excellence. Besides that, the dialogue is always discernible. As for added content, we get a good commentary track from Ray and producer Schenck. It's loaded with backstory and artistic/authenticity arguments. Elsewhere, we are treated to a polite if derivative photo gallery. Not much in the way of bonus features, but at least the alternate narrative track provides some important insight.
Historical accuracy aside, Fred Olen Ray's second salvo into the world of white hats and black Barts is just not that engaging. While the James boys may believe "the South will rise again," their antics in support of such a position are passable at best—especially when realized in such a simplistic, staid manner.
Guilty. While enjoyable, this unexceptional offering deserves only scant
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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