[box cover]

The Newton Boys

Fox Home Video

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich,
Vincent D'Onofrio, Julianna Margulies, Dwight Yoakam

Written by Richard Linklater, Claude Stanush, and Clark Lee Walker
Based on the book The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang
by Claude Stanush

Directed by Richard Linklater

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There's not much to distinguish Willis Newton from your ordinary Old West outlaw bank robber. Jailed for a petty theft he says he didn't commit, Willis doesn't hold much faith in the law. Brought up a farmer, he's come to view bankers as the very worst of crooks and thieves. Add three brothers who hold similar views, plus an expert in the destructive arts of nitroglycerin, and Willis finds himself in charge of the most successful gang of bank robbers in American History.

Based on the book The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang by Claude Stanush, director Richard Linklater's film takes his trademarked casual approach to the story of the true-life gang who robbed 40 banks during a few short years in the 1920s, until they were caught after a less-than-smooth $3 million train robbery.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Willis, not the oldest of the Newton Boys, nor the most jaded, but easily the most ambitious. Upon release from an early jail term, Willis reckons that life is unfair, and so being, it's going to be unfair in his favor for a turn. He joins a small gang whose first robbery is their last. It's a traditional daylight robbery during the bank's operating hours, and ends with the gang's leader captured, and only one bag of cash and bonds successfully hijacked. It's a mess, but it does give Willis an idea.

Willis, determined to use a non-violent approach to theft, pioneers the nighttime bank robbery: no bystanders, but lots of explosives to blow open the safes (and, as it happens, most of the bank). This works like, well, dynamite, and Linklater even obliges the audience with a run-of-the-mill "good-times" montage of banks exploding and money rolling in. I guess Linklater's thesis is that the Newtons were successful because Willis was always improvising. First he finds success by robbing at night. When bank owners catch on that the Newtons are targeting a specific type of safe, they switch to a design that is impervious to nitro. Then Newton targets the money in transit between safes, even if it means returning to daylight robberies of security guards in the middle of busy streets. When an attempt to funnel his booty into a legitimate venture — a failed oil business — goes belly up, he turns his sights toward what will be the biggest train robbery in the annals of time.

There may have been a way to spin Willis Newton's family exploits into a telling American epic, but unfortunately, Linklater doesn't seem interested. What he does deliver is a mildly diverting, run-of-the-mill robbery spree pic, which offers nowhere near the provocative point-of-view of memorable gangster forays such as Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, nor the taut suspense of cracking heist-thrillers like Richard Brooks' The Professionals. The Newton Boys is everything we have seen before — and numerous times at that. In his short career, Linklater's most impressive films have been rooted in the subject matter of teen and young adult angst. In fact, with Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise, he's responsible for some of the very best that genre has to offer. And while the Newton Boys is thankfully bereft of the painful pretenses of his prior film — the Eric Bogosian-penned SubUrbia — it's obvious from watching this latest effort that all Linklater knows about bank robberies is what he's seen in the movies.

McConaughey is fine as Willis, but is by far the least interesting of his brothers, the rest of whom are relegated to elliptical supporting roles. The youngest Newton, Joe (Skeet Ulrich), is the most troubled by their illegitimate business, but his input is limited to stomping out of one campfire consultation, only to be in on the next job. The oldest Newton, Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio), is veteran convict who does little more than look mean and unshaven. The most dynamic of the brothers is Jess (Ethan Hawke), an irresponsible drunk who enjoys the thrill of crime but would rather tame wild horses on the range. Hawke is only given a few moments to shine, but he takes them and puts the dull remainder of the movie to shame. The Newton Boys also stars Dwight Yoakam as the timid nitro specialist Brentwood Glassock, and Julianna Margulies in the thankless role of Willis' concerned paramour.

The best part of The Newton Boys is the final credits, and not only for the relief they bring after over two hours of undistinguished filmmaking, but because they are accompanied by interviews with a few of the real Newton brothers reflecting back on their criminal careers from the perspective of old age.

Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, 16x9 enhanced, and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround. Trailer, textual supplements, keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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