Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:02 - Released 3/20/98

Back in the days when bank robbers were gentlemen and the general public thought of people like Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde as folk heroes rather than criminals, there rode a gang of four brothers named Newton. This movie is the true story of their exploits in the early part of this century, exploits that resulted in their being referred to by some as "America's most successful bank robbers."

The four Newton brothers, Willis (Matthew McConaughey), Joe (Skeet Ulrich), Jess (Ethan Hawke), and Doc (Vincent D'Onofrio), reunite after Willis has completed a jail sentence. Along with Willis's friend Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), who is a specialist in explosives, the boys go right back into the business with little hesitation except on the part of Joe, the youngest, who resists but finally goes along to prove he's "not scared."

During the early '20s, the boys rob banks night after night, exploding safes and then politely asking the alarmed townsfolk to go back to sleep. What they are doing is not really wrong, as Willis explains it, because now that the banks are all insured, the customers don't lose their money — the wealthy insurance companies do. "We're just little crooks robbing the big crooks," he explains with a charming smile. And for most of the simple folks living in the shadow of those large corporations, it's hard to disagree.

Along the way, Willis meets a young single mother named Louise Brown (Julianna Margolies). His growing relationship with her, and her uneasiness with his profession, make him want to go legit and realize his dream of becoming an oil baron. But before he does that, the Newton boys must make the big score.

This is a fun movie, penned by Claude Stanush (who wrote the book), with assistance from Clark Walker and director Richard Linklater. The fact that it's more or less true (supported by actual interviews with the elderly ex-cons during the closing credits) adds a measure of credibility to the proceedings. The acting is solid, and the four brothers' characterizations are adequately separate to show four different personalities: Willis is the mastermind who always wants more; Jess and Doc are generally fearless and willing participants (as much for the fun as for the money); and Joe, the conscientious objector, is always a bit leery of meeting Willis's ever-increasing demands.

Unfortunately, the choice of director Linklater to include so much of the boys' story causes the movie to stall in the middle. After the successful period is capped with an enjoyable montage of bank robbery scenes, the film seems to spin its wheels for a long time before leading up to the climactic train robbery sequence. It seems much of this section, including a botched attempt at robbing a Canadian bank during a transfer of funds, could have been omitted. This would have helped portray the gang as advertised (i.e., successful) rather than just greedy and, usually, lucky.

Still, despite this dead spot in the middle, The Newton Boys is an enjoyable romp through the world of early-'20s bank robbers, with little violence or unsavory subject matter. And the interviews at the end are especially interesting. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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