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Frank & Jesse

Bill Paxton and Rob Lowe on the Dingus Project/
Jesse James in Film #06

He was great in West Wing, and he looks a little like the real Jesse James. But this is Hollywood, not history. Rob Lowe, a proto-Brad Pitt, took on the outlaw role in 1994. Lowe’s version is miles ahead of Colin Farrell’s, but that isn’t saying much. 

Frank & Jesse (1994)
100 minutes
Rob Lowe, Bill Paxton, Randy Travis

Rob Lowe co-produced this highly inaccurate version of the James story starring himself as a hot-headed Jesse and a low-key Bill Paxton as Frank. The chemistry isn’t far off the mark historically, and Lowe even looks like the real outlaw. But that’s where fact and fiction depart.

Frank & Jesse by Rob Lowe on the Dingus Project/ SeacoastNH.comBig-brother Frank comes to regret having introduced little Jesse to the brutality of gang raids during the Civil War. Jesse develops a blood-lust that can’t be quenched. Lowe plays Jesse as the handsome likeable guy that he sometimes was. Yet this is still largely the fictional James, not the real character. The railroad leaders and detective Allan Pinkerton are reduced to little more than cartoons.

Although the film gets a few of the thematic elements right (Jesse on the run, the hierarchy of the gang) it condenses history with some whopper Hollywood changes. Jesse leaps from a hill onto a moving train, for example. His wife Zee shoots a Pinkerton agent. That never happened. Jesse stabs Charlie Ford just before his murder. Nope. Captain Sheets confesses to killing Bloody Bill Anderson, which he did not in real life.

Despite its depiction of James as an occasionally bad guy and a poor leader, "Frank and Jesse" still glorifies James’ atrocities, even playing "Superman" style music as the gang robs and pillages. The idea persists that James was a victim of his times and, if you discount murdering innocent bystanders, he wasn’t such a bad dude.. Singer Randy Travis plays Cole Younger and narrates the film. Off and on. In the end he croons: "Freedom is the only thing that matters to a man who won’t be tied." Huh?

While Jesse, aka Robe Lowe, explains away his murderous behavior as simply "settling old scores", Frank’s explanation is better. "It’s kinda like holding a wolf by the ears," he says. "You don’t like it, but you don’t want to let go"


The plan here in creating another James flick was apparently to knick off another "buddy" movie between brothers. It has been done often and better. The best scene in the film is when Jesse dances with his wife and new baby at a house-raising party in the hills. For a brief moment the viewer almost imagine how James’ gambling, quest for fame and violent nature scuttled his sporadic attempts to actually settle down as a normal citizen. Lowe ekes out a little bit of empathy. But ultimately this romantic pop star portrayal is little more than a recycled version of the old inaccurate Robin Hood legend with one more TV idol in the lead role.

Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.


Jesse James by J. Dennis Robinson


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