Perhaps the best compliment that one can offer in response to the exceedingly okay “The Baytown Outlaws” is that it’s the kind of ‘70s hicks-ploitation throwback that feels like it honestly might have come along even if Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez hadn’t kicked off a trend of chintzy, low-grade, ultra-violent knock-offs in the wake of their “Grindhouse” double feature.
The eponymous outlaws are the Oodie Brothers: leader Brick (Clayne Crawford), mute brute Lincoln (Daniel Cudmore) and smartaleck McQueen (Travis Fimmel). Orphaned at a young age, they unofficially attend to the small-town troubles of Sheriff Henry Millard (Andre Braugher), keeping the local crime rates low by making the occasional mess on his behalf. For Celeste (Eva Longoria), they’re just the kind of men that she could send after sleazeball ex-husband Carlos (Billy Bob Thornton) in order to retrieve her godson, Rob (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). For the Oodies, it’s oodles of money that they simply can’t bring themselves to refuse.
Naturally, this smash-and-grab operation of theirs isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, and before they know it, Carlos is sending an ethnically diverse sampling of gangs after them to take back the kid and leave these troublemakers for dead. The mayhem that follows is proudly violent -- alternating between digital squibs (boo!) and real fake blood (yay!) -- and practically deep-fried, passing off Louisiana for everywhere from Texas to Mississippi while generally exuding a spirit of the South throughout.
It’s not all “Freebird” and automatic weapons, though. One of our three leads is clad in a sleeveless T-shirt styled after the Confederate Flag, and yet all three are indebted to a black authority figure who cleans up their messes in exchange for them cleaning up his. Thornton hardly seems like much of a Carlos, mostly barking orders into a cell phone, but even he makes a point of divvying up his henchman duties between sultry women (including Zoë Bell and Agnes Bruckner), Native American bikers and an all-black gang, as if beholden to a scumbag equivalent of affirmative action.
Maybe director Barry Battles and his co-writer, Griffin Hood, really had a larger cultural conversation in mind, but I have my doubts. They’re more mindful of a tedious subplot involving Braugher and a federal agent who’s come sniffing around in an effort to align his own surrogate family story with that of the Brothers as they hit the highway with a silent Rob in tow and begin to take a liking to him. The role’s a quiet, squirmy challenge for Brodie-Sangster, but he doesn’t favor handicapped caricature as one might fear. In comparison, everyone else -- Fimmel, Crawford, Cudmore, Longoria -- has it easy, done up with greasy hair, tattoos and gunshot wounds, asked to deliver much of their dialogue through gritted teeth.
Once the garish comic-book-style (and typo-marred) opening credits ease up, the action runs the gamut from barroom brawls and gunfights to a proper back-road car chase, and when the similar distractions of needless speed ramping and slow-motion fall away, the camerawork is up close and convincing, often jittery but never incoherent. Whenever “The Baytown Outlaws” shuts up and puts up, it makes a good case for its own existence, which is more than could be said for the like-minded “Bitch Slap” and “Hell Ride.” Its ultimate merits may be few, but if nothing else, it stands on its own sweaty terms.
“The Baytown Outlaws” is currently available On Demand and will open in select cities on January 11th.