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Newton Boys

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Chloe Webb

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Why do you rob banks?" asked a journalist to Willie Sutton. "Because that's where the money is," he answered, a one-liner which insured Mr. Sutton's place as one of the best known of his profession. Now, Richard Linklater, who directed "The Newton Boys" in a script he co-wrote with Claude Stanush and Clark Lee Walker (based on a book by Stanush), aims to make a group of four men as famous as Sutton. In fact, when its principal character, Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey), rallies his brothers, he uses a similar expression, "We're gonna get the big banks because that's where the money is."

"The Newton Boys" is the story of four bank robbers who, according to production notes, pulled off the most lucrative train robbery in U.S. history when they ended their career by ripping off a huge stash from a mail train outside of Chicago in the early 1920s. The movie is based on a book written by former Life magazine reporter Claude Stanush, who had gained the confidence of Willis and Joe Newton in 1973 and got their story in a series of interviews which grew into a full volume.

In translating the story from page to screen, director Richard Linklater--heretofore known for his sophomoric albeit involving movies "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused"--goes for the light touch. The story is conceivably inspired by one of the great caper movies, George Roy Hill's 1969 "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (about outlaws Paul Newman and Robert Redford who are pursued by a relentless but remote sheriff's posse), but Linklater's creation lacks the sharp dialogue, originality, and the score of that masterwork. Though the picture is sporadically dramatic and involving, for the most part its attempts at levity are leaden, the chemistry between Matthew McConaughey and Julianne Margulies unconvincing, and given the lackadaisical planning and generally drunken condition of the brothers, their overall success not credible. The story is bogged down from time to time by the whining of the perps, particularly Mr. McConaughey in the role of the gang leader, Willis Newton, who insists that the banks abused him, and he was only one thief robbing from another. His whimpering begins early on when he gripes about the rejection of his courtship by the girl's father, who continued to employ him in the fields: "An ex-con is not good enough for his daughter, but he's good enough to pick cotton."

Edited briskly by Sandra Adair, the film shifts smoothly from a collage of small banks blown sky-high to scenes of the robbers playing at being gentlemen; from close-ups of the safecrackers carefully pouring nitroglycerin into the crevices of the locks to their feeble attempts at humor. The last category highlights some cornball sallies, as when a strikingly clean-cut Willis Newton asks the lovely hotel shopkeeper Louise Brown Julianna Margulies) what's fun to do in Omaha, receiving the reply, "You can chew gum," or when one of the gang anticipates investing his money in stock and bonds: "Silk stocks and bonded whiskey."

While Matthew McConaughey's character is reasonably well developed, his partners in crime are for the most part ciphers who fail to win our sympathy or interest because of their odious ways. Ethan Hawke in particular plays Jess Newton as an infantile drunk, an unlikely partner in the burglaries of eighty banks and a mail train, while the usually superb Vincent D'Onofrio makes embarrassing attempts to engage in horseplay with his brothers. Skeet Ulrich's character, Joe Newton, is merely a wide-eyed cipher, and other criminals, notably Charles Gunning as Slim, are stereotypes, smirking in the obvious ways in which brigands have been depicted for decades in the old-fashioned Westerns.

Linklater seems determined to portray these robbers in the style of the cowboy films that shrouded the TV sets of the sixties, substituting hotel clerk Louise for the cliched, tough but vulnerable saloon-keeper of the "Gunsmoke" era and slipping in implausible scenes as when Slim shows up unannounced where the Newton boys are holed up and tells Willis with a smirk, "You can look me up in Chicago" before disappearing into the horizon. Perhaps truth is stranger than fiction, though. Though the boys pulled over eighty burglaries including several armed robberies (without killing anyone), they ultimately received sentences as light as nine months. As the credits roll, an epilogue depicts two of the actual, aging Newton boys in interviews, one with Johnny Carson, neither exchange particularly insightful.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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