For the time this film was made (1980) it is rather impressive. The way it looks and the special effects have not been ravaged by time. Even if you are not a fan of Westerns or plenty of fisticuffs and fight scenes just the way it was shot will keep you glued to the screen. The violence in it is very artistic in its look and feel. Kinda elevates the whole thing. Plus there are plenty of real-life brothers (Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Robert Carradine, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid, Stacy Keach, James Keach, Christopher Guest, and Nicholas Guest) playing brothers on screen which adds a nice touch.
Though this is a Western director Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hrs.) does not skimp on the way it looks. The aesthetic aspects of the film are focused on. Slow-mo is used for the shootouts and it is a good choice visually. As a result the impact is heightened. It shows how violence can be looked at as art or at least the presentation of it can be. The green of the Missouri hills pops out (especially in blu-ray) and you almost feel like you have a layer of dust on you after watching it.
Westerns are not usually my favourites, but this film is one of the very few exceptions. Maybe because it does not rely on the usual Western elements. No heroes, no good guys vs. bad guys, no romantic subplot, not the same old dusty soundtrack, and it is not dragged out beyond good sense. Several of the scenes (train robbery, stagecoach heist, the crossing of the river, the gang’s ill-advised and tragic raid in Northfield, Minnesota) are so well done that they warrant rewatchings.
The James-Younger gang got its start out of revenge. The South is defeated by the North in the Civil War and some Southerners are not done trying to battle the government. Some veterans and sympathizers band together to form the gang. They go around the country pulling off robberies of all sorts. This looting, robbing and murdering goes on for about fifteen years then the authorities have had enough. Posses and vigilante groups band together and hunt down the gang. Heroes that some saw as stealing from the rich to give to the poor or just blood thirsty criminals? It is for the viewer to decide.
What really stands out in the story and the way that Hill presents it is the realism. He does not romanticize anything about this time in history. The landscape is dusty and there is not much to do but drink and whore around. Most of the inhabitants are quite cut-throat as that is what you needed to be to survive. Justice was doled out in bar room brawls and street shoot outs. All the violence and bloodshed is shown to be normal and frequent.