01/10/2013 01:48 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Movie Review: The Baytown Outlaws

It's hard at first to decide how seriously to take The Baytown Outlaws -- until you realize that the people making it certainly weren't. If they aren't, why start?

If you can relax into the dirtball ethos of Barry Battles' film, you can enjoy it for what it is: a hare-brained car-chase-action thriller, with enough graphic violence for a spaghetti western. It has the soul of 1970s drive-in hot-rod movies, mashed up with a little Dukes of Hazzard, a little Warriors, a little Road Warrior. Oh yeah -- and it's got Billy Bob Thornton, who was born to play the redneck sleazeball crimelord he does here.

I kept wanting to dismiss The Baytown Outlaws and it kept yanking me back into it. Again, I emphasize that it has no interest in being a great film, just an entertaining one with a grindhouse ethos.

So imagine Smokey and the Bandit, except even the good guys are blood-spilling bad guys. But they aren't as vicious and irredeemable as the actual bad guys. So it's OK to waste the villains as the mood strikes you.

The title characters are a trio of Oodie brothers -- Brick (Clayne Crawford), McQueen (Travis Fimmel) and Lincoln (Daniel Cudmore) -- all ex-cons living in a small town in Alabama. They are thieves and killers -- but somehow, a woman named Celeste (Eva Longoria) gets their name as parties who might be able to help her get her son back in a custody battle. The father has snatched the child -- and so the Oodie brothers agree to grab him back for the mom.

What they don't know is that the purported father is a vicious druglord named Carlos (Thornton), who is trying to expand his drug empire and needs the kid (and the money the government pays for his upkeep, since he's confined to a wheelchair) to keep his operation afloat. Yet somehow, the piddling support check this kid receives is enough to underwrite a fleet of cars and the gunsels to staff them.

So you've got good bad guys -- who think nothing of pulling a stickup to get some fast cash - and you've got bad bad guys, led by Thornton. And then there are the various groups of costumed bikers -- mean chicks, stealthy Native Americans -- that Thornton sends after the brothers once they snatch the kid.

None of it makes much sense, but the action is surprisingly energetic. It is also unnecessarily sadistic at times, a growing trend in an age when computers can realistically create any visual idea someone can dream up.

There is surprising heart in the film, as the brothers bond with Celeste's son and learn to communicate with the unspeaking young man. Battles comes up with unexpected humor and even more unexpected warmth in a movie that's mostly about blazing guns and roaring auto engines.

The Baytown Outlaws looks and feels like a throwback, the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made with Grindhouse. Except not as good. Still, it's a movie that some moviegoers can justify as a guilty pleasure. I'll certainly admit to being embarrassed at just how entertained I was.

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