Writer-director Robert Boris has fashioned a story of revenge, with the rebel brothers looking to pay back the Rock Central Railroad — for taking their Missouri farm and killing their father and brother — and the Union, for making them swear allegiance.
The plot is better than the dialogue, with original “Wanted” posters, cartoons, photos and newspaper headlines woven into the historical thread.
On the plus side, the well-researched “Frank and Jesse”– intended for theatrical release, but making its world preem on HBO — offers a provocative angle on the story of the James brothers, placing responsibility for the outlaws’ behavior directly on the North’s treatment of the South following the Civil War. On the down side, Rob Lowe doesn’t convey the right kind of menace or enough strength in the all-important role of Jesse.
Frank (Bill Paxton) and Jesse assemble pals from their Confederate unit, Quantrill’s Raiders, and start preying on the railroad.
Lowe doesn’t convey a sense of Jesse’s appetite for bloodthirsty mischief. Paxton gives a slightly more substantial performance as Frank.
William Atherton gives a workmanlike perf as Alan Pinkerton. Narration by Randy Travis in the role of Cole Younger is effective; his vocal talent gives him gravity. Unfortunately, there’s nothing fluid about the stunts or action sequences except copious amounts of blood. Lenser Walt Lloyd does his best work on arty long shots.
Boris’ approach undercuts much of the delight audiences derive from Western heroes (or anti-heroes) raidin’, ridin’ and takin’. Fair enough; deconstructing the Western is all the rage. Yet telling it from the James’ p.o.v. is one thing — turning Jesse into a martyred Christ figure is going a bit too far.
A historical adventure has been turned into a Lowe vehicle; curiously, if it had succeeded as such it would also be a more compelling drama.