The Newton Boys

on March 27, 1998 by Cathy Thompson-Georges
   Butch and Sundance meet Willie Sutton (the man who robbed banks because "that's where the money was") in this good-natured flick. Director Richard Linklater, best known for slices of life about disaffected modern teens, has plenty of fun in his period piece heist film, complete with a silent-movie title sequence and old-fashioned wipes between scenes.
   Based on a true story, "The Newton Boys" follows the adventures of a band of country-boy brothers who take up bank robbery in the '20s, and very nearly get away with. Willis (Matthew McConaughey) is the good-looking, fast-talking ringleader, with amiable drunk Jess (Ethan Hawke), burly Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) and young, straight-laced Joe (Skeet Ulrich) falling in with the plan. The boys romp from Texas to Canada, leaving a trail of blown safes in their wake, until they take on a mail train in an ill-advised Last Big Score.
   The Newton Boys is a zesty throwback to films like "The Sting" and "The Brinks Job"; the bad guys are the good guys (since the banks are insured, Willis figures that "we're just the little thieves stealing from the big thieves"). And this is a hunky group of Newtons indeed. McConaughey is a fine lovable rogue; Hawke hams it up annoyingly; and D'Onofrio and Ulrich do what they do well enough. They're all overshadowed, however, by a captivating performance by Dwight Yoakam as the boys' level-headed mentor in the art of safe-cracking. The Newton Boys doesn't add up to anything much; Linklater is too busy making us like the Newtons to give them much depth. But it's fun just the same, even if the film's finest moment is during its own closing credits: interview footage of two of the Newton brothers, shot when they were well into a respectable old age.    Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and Skeet Ulrich. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater, Claude Stanush and Clark Lee Walker. Produced by Anne Walker-McBay. A Fox release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence including bloody aftermath of a shooting, and for language. Running time: 121 min.
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