Grimness is de rigueur in '70s revisionist Westerns, but Philip Kaufman insists on a joshing tempo and delivers a Preston Sturgesian portrait of myth. The tone is plaintive and mocking, established early on by leapfrogging from a Peckinpah ambush to a vision shot through crossed eyes. Jesse James (Robert Duvall) is introduced sitting with brother Frank (John Pearce) in the outhouse, Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) is outside savoring his pipe and his legend, wowing the crowd with the bulletholes in his leather vest. The outlaws are populist heroes, the Missouri state legislature promises amnesty but then accepts money from railroad bosses so mustache-twirler Pinkerton (Herbert Nelson) can hunt the men down. Corruption flows freely in a divided system -- "Seems they left out a whole civil war," one Southern gunslinger says of the centennial banner hailing "100 years of union" -- and Younger is ready to adapt, seeing the robbery of Northfield's bank as a withdraw for funds to buy their freedom from crooked authorities. "Blinkey-eyed bastard" Jessie James is still on the warpath, however, and for him the purpose of the raid is to level this "Yankee Gomorrah." Arthur Penn's influence (The Left-Handed Gun, Bonnie and Clyde) is clearly delineated, even as Kaufman's absurdism anticipates The Missouri Breaks: When baseball is heralded as the new national sport, Younger begs to differ and applies his carbine to the scorecard. Among the "wonderments" that beguile the outlaw are horseless buggies, steam-powered calliopes, a handlebar stache improvised out of mule-tail hair to camouflage a mauled jaw; others include Duvall's bravura rendition of psycho-charlatan zeal and Kaufman's sketch of a vengeful posse storming a brothel and leaving its customers dangling from a tree with trousers down. Younger is caught in a hail of gunfire but survives into the 20th-century, a rascal who, like Kaufman's astronauts, understands the nation's need to believe in heroes. With Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, Matt Clark, Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, and Royal Dano.
--- Fernando F. Croce