(director/writer: Walter Hill; screenwriters: Bill Bryden/Steven Phillip Smith/Stacy Keach/James Keach; cinematographer: Ric Waite; editors: Freeman Davies/David Holden; music: Ry Cooder; cast: David Carradine (Cole Younger), Keith Carradine (Jim Younger), Robert Carradine (Bob Younger), James Keach (Jesse James), Stacy Keach (Frank James), Dennis Quaid (Ed Miller), Randy Quaid (Clell Miller), Kevin Brophy (John Younger), Harry Carey, Jr. (George Arthur), Christopher Guest (Charlie Ford), Nicholas Guest (Bob Ford), Shelby Leverington (Annie Ralston), Pamela Reed (Belle Starr), James Remar (Sam Starr), Felice Orlandi (Carl Reddick, reporter), James Whitmore Jr. (Rixley, Pinkerton honcho), Fran Ryan (Mrs Samuel); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Tim Zinnemann; MGM Home Entertainment; 1980)
“One of the more idiosyncratic James gang westerns but not necessarily one of the better ones.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the more idiosyncratic James gang westerns but not necessarily one of the better ones. It’s a Sam Peckinpah lookalike film, with slow-mo gunfire at the infamous bank robbery in Minnesota, and also pays tribute to John Ford’s lifetime achievement in Westerns. The film’s gimmick has four sets of brothers playing four sets of brothers: David, Keith and Robert Carradine play Cole, Jim and Bob Younger and when they run out of Carradines, Kevin Brophy plays John Younger; James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James; Dennis and Randy Quaid play Ed and Clell Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest play the rat fink Charlie and Bob Ford, with Bob plugging Jesse in the back as he adjusts a framed copy of the saying “God bless our home.”

Walter Hill (“The Driver”/ “Southern Comfort”/”48 Hrs.”) helms it from an action-packed screenplay by Scotsman Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, and James and Stacy Keach, but the filmmaker is never clear whether he wants to continue the James gang myth as working-class heroes or debunk the myth. Though the film stylistically is a winner (great opening shot of horsemen silhouetted on a grassy hill) and is well-crafted, storywise it’s thin and abstract. It leaves one with flawed criminals as heroes and lots of unneeded moral ambiguity, and adds nothing to the familiar story that’s either true or false. Ry Cooder provides the pleasant country western musical score with a full supply of old frontier ballads and Civil War tunes, that goes nicely with the lush pastoral photographed 19th-century images by Ric Waite. It’s told in episodic form, not worrying too much about getting its legendary Western tale accurate.

After a Missouri bank robbery, Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid) finds himself kicked out of the gang for needlessly killing the bank teller during the robbery. The boys go on to rob a stagecoach and the Rock Island railroad. This brings the Pinkertons to the gang’s hometown in rural Clay, Missouri, where the locals despise the Yankees, the railroad and the Pinkertons. The Pinkerton’s force a gunfight in the woods with two of the Younger brothers and kill the 18-year-old who doesn’t even ride with them and then they burn down the cabin of the James brothers’ mom (Fran Ryan) and kill her simple-minded 15-year-old son from her second husband. The boys get revenge and kill the two Pinkertons who did the damage. This causes the gang to disperse to five states, where the hedonistic Cole Younger ventures to see his prostitute lover Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) and gets into a nicely choreographed knife fight with her jealous half-breed husband (James Remar). The gang can’t resist going back to robbing banks and unite in the ill-fated Northfield, Minnesota bank raid that leaves only the austere James brothers fully intact. It ends with the cowardly Ford brothers making a deal with the obsessively aggressive Pinkerton honcho Rixley (James Whitmore Jr.) to bring down Jesse for $15,000.