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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 Walter Frith
2½ stars out of 4

'The Newton Boys' does something clever. It draws you in slowly after a more than mediocre beginning and eventually has you rooting for a group of wild west American outlaws who never killed anyone in their rampage of robbing somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 banks between 1919 and 1924. Using a Robin Hood mentality of robbing from the rich to pay the poor (in this case, however, they pay themselves), Matthew McConaughey (Willis Newton) Ethan Hawke (Jess Newton) Skeet Ulrich (Joe Newton), and Vincent D'Onofrio (Dock Newton) are featured as the four brothers who are loyal to each other and to their profession. Dwight Yoakam is an explosives expert who hooks up with the brothers and his specialty is using a nitro mix in blowing safes. Rounding out the leading players is Julianna Margulies who plays Louise, a cigar store clerk who becomes Willis' girlfriend.

As the brothers plot each robbery, there is a hint of detail reminiscent of a documentary style approach by director Richard Linklater ('Dazed and Confused', 'Before Sunrise') and the visual style the film projects is very impressive and candidly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey is a charismatic leading man and he is truly one of this generation's most under rated actors and has a power capable of carrying an entire film on his back. His portrayal of Willis Newton, a man raised dirt poor who had a tough life and claims to have went to prison as an innocent man, is someone many people can generate sympathy for and these factors fuel his desire to rob banks as we see him at the start of the film as an ex-con as someone asks him: "How was prison?", to which he replies: "How was the war?"

Despite the unusual place in history the Newton brothers have found, they remain virtually unknown compared to the likes of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and "Baby Face" Nelson. Perhaps because the Newton brothers weren't as cold blooded as their criminal peers and not just the American but the human fascination with violence is something that propels the most violent criminals to the top of the list in terms of historical documentation. It's a constant pleasure to watch the creators of film pick up on a part of history that is relatively unknown because the research proves to be more difficult and when you succeed, it is a greater testament to your endeavour as a creative artist.

Everything is meticulously crafted in 'The Newton' Boys'. From the clothes, to the sets, to the music, even the dialogue and wild west attitude are nailed down as impressively as any I've ever seen. The most interesting footage of the film comes in two places. First is a trip to Canada where they try and rob banks in Ottawa and Toronto and find Canadian safes better built and harder to crack so they decide to rob banks in broad daylight on the street as they witness bank employees, in a more civilized and less dangerous society, openly carry large bags of cash on the streets for transfer and delivery and as the boys hold them up, they do what they can to get away without killing anyone in the process. Secondly is the film's closing credits which are accompanied by footage of the Johnny Carson show where the real Willis Newton is interviewed by Carson and we see the real Joe Newton in clips of home movies and they tell how the brothers always viewed banks and insurance companies as cheats themselves and that his gang was just one thief robbing from another.

Not a great justification of their profession, and while some may criticize the film as a glorification of bank robberies, it's captivating simplicity and depth of academic focus make it entertaining as an alternative form of social commentary and the film does something rare. It only uses violence when necessary to make its intended points.

Copyright 1998 Walter Frith

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