[Screen It]


(1998) (Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke) (PG-13)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
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Smoking Tense Family
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Drama: Four brothers set out to rob as many banks as they can in the 1920's.
In 1919 Texas, the Newton's are a poor farming family. Brothers Jess (ETHAN HAWKE) and Joe (SKEET ULRICH) spend their time working on the farm, while older brother Willis (MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY) returns home after being fired from the job he got once released from prison.

Although he claims he was innocent, Willis immediately returns to a life of crime robbing banks with Brentwood Glasscock (DWIGHT YOAKAM), a nitroglycerine expert, and Slim (CHARLES GUNNING), their leader. When they need more help, Willis convinces his brothers to assist, and despite Joe's ethical objections, they finally agree. After losing Slim, but pulling off more successful heists, they're joined by their other brother, Doc (VINCENT D'ONOFRIO), who's also just been released from prison.

Becoming richer every day, Willis hopes not only to turn to a more respectable business when they're done robbing banks, but he also tries to impress Louise Brown (JULIANNA MARGUILES), a cigar stand worker he meets who eventually joins him and his brothers. As several years pass, the brothers eventually decide to stage a $3 million mail-train heist, an act that will bring them great wealth, but even bigger trouble.

If they're fans of the teen heartthrob cast, they might, but a period piece about bank robbers might not be a huge draw.
For violence including the bloody aftermath of a shooting, and for language.
Considering that the major characters are bank robbers or are supportive of the brothers' actions, and that many of them drink and smoke, it's doubtful many parents would consider them as good role models.


OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Bank robbers and gangsters have long held a special spot in the collective psyche of many American moviegoers. We're not talking about the ski mask wearing variety of today, but the guys who, more than half a century ago and back, lived by certain personal codes that belied and often covered their more corrupt and often violent deeds. Just the mere mention of Capone, Dillinger, or the Dalton brothers elicits a near romanticized notion of a different time and place when criminals were "gentlemen" of sorts. Of course they really weren't, but time has a funny way of turning such people into "heroic" figures.

If you mention the name, "Newton," however, more people today would probably be inclined to think of the popular fig cookie instead of a brotherly group of bank robbers from the 1920's. Perhaps it's because they didn't kill anyone, but the Newton's never achieved the lofty status of their more famous associates. This is despite the fact that they were more "successful" than Butch and Sundance, Bonnie and Clyde, and even Jesse James.

Knocking off more than eighty banks in a span of five years, their spree culminated in their eventual capture after the largest train robbery ever. They subsequently served relatively little time and eventually died as old, but free men. It may just be a result of them not going down in a hail of bullets like so many others, but the Newton's never made it to that romanticized notion of pre-WWII criminals.

Twentieth Century Fox, director Richard Linklater ("SubUrbia," "Dazed and Confused"), and an attractive and talented cast of young men hope to change all of that. With their release of "The Newton Boys," they hope to find the same success that propelled movies such as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Bonnie and Clyde" into Hollywood history. Despite their efforts and the heartthrob cast, however, it's not very likely that they'll succeed.

That's not to say that the film is bad. It's just that it's surprisingly uneventful for a film that should be exciting and suspenseful. While there are a few action-filled moments, the rest of the picture has a bland feel to it. Sure, it perfectly captures the look and feel of that transitional period in the first decades of the twentieth century when transportation choices ranged from riding on horseback to riding in a motorcar, and when fancy gangster suits replaced standard issue cowboy dress. It also shows just how (amazingly) easy it was to rob banks back then. And it features a charismatic cast with a terrific performance from its lead actor, Matthew McConaughey.

Yet this truth-based story neither exudes the educationally interesting aspects of a documentary, nor the fun and excitement of a well-made bank robbery yarn. Instead, it just sort of meanders from one robbery to the next and from one year to the next. No terrific complications arise and no one "authority figure" stands out or pursues the brothers to add more suspense. In a word, the film comes off as uneventful.

Now, no one but historians can positively say just how accurately the truth was presented here by Linklater and fellow screenwriters Clark Lee Walker and Claude Stanush (who cowrote the book on which this is based). Their collective script, however, is the source of most of the film's problems. None of the characters -- beyond McConaughey's -- generates any vested interest from the audience, and even he can elicit only a small amount of sympathy for his character. While we don't mind watching their shenanigans, Linklater and company don't allow us to actively root for these guys. One of the first rules of storytelling is that an audience needs to root for somebody (the villains or the authority figure chasing them) to make a good, compelling film.

In direct relation, since these guys were the most successful criminals of their time, they obviously either were very good or had little "heat" to "persuade" them to stop. While they obviously knew what they were doing, as presented here the lack of conflict -- and the fact that they were gentlemen bandits who considered themselves as businessmen -- makes the film come off as anything but exciting -- a definite "no-no" for a movie dealing with period bank robbers.

This is despite a terrific cast filled with extremely charismatic performers who seem more realistic in their roles than many of their cohorts whose previous efforts often give the feeling of watching some kids raid the costume shop. The obvious standout is McConaughey ("A Time To Kill," "Amistad") who delivers what might just be the best performance of his career. In other films his "good old boy" Southern charm has often worked against him, but not so in this picture. He easily slides into this character and is nothing but completely believable.

Ethan Hawke ("Great Expectations," "Gattaca") also delivers a believable performance as the wildest and most carefree of the brothers, and the look on his face when he's finally caught and arrested late in the film is priceless. Skeet Ulrich ("Scream," "As Good As It Gets") does a good job portraying the brother with the most reservations and ethical problems regarding their endeavors, but the fabulous Vincent D'Onofrio ("Men In Black," "The Whole Wide World") is nearly wasted in his role that doesn't give him much to do other than eventually get shot. Likewise, Julianna Margulies ("Paradise Road," TV's "ER") seems present mainly as an attractive set decoration -- or perhaps to "water down" all of the testosterone -- and isn't given much to do either, other than play the stereotypically concerned romantic interest.

Despite the decent cast, they are completely overshadowed and exposed as nothing more than actors playing parts (which, of course, is what they are) when Linklater includes separate interviews with the real Joe and Willis Newton during their later years that play alongside the closing credits. Still full of life and humor (at the time of the interviews), one gets the feeling that their real-life escapades were probably a lot more exciting than how this movie turns out. Even so, this isn't a horrible film by any means, and is easy to watch despite its rather bland nature. While you may leave the theater liking it, you'll instinctively know it would have been a great deal better had you really cared or been concerned about someone in the picture. For that reason, we give "The Newton Boys" just a 5.5 out of 10.

Despite the fact that this is a period piece set in the 1920's and is based on true events (when these actions were easier to get away with), parents might not like the fact that robbing banks is made to look like a relatively safe and fun way to make some quick money. The bandits are made out to be charismatic, fun-loving guys, only one of them is injured (but by one of his own men and not the police), they serve little time in prison, and as the end clips during the credits show, one of them even got to appear on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

Beyond the actual bank robberies, there are plenty of shots fired at -- and from -- the "law." Several people are wounded, and one of the brothers is later shot and is quite bloody (but lives). There's some other non weapon related violence and many of the characters drink, smoke, and cuss. Since this is rated PG-13 and features some heartthrobs, kids may want to see it. Thus, we suggest that you look through the material to determine whether it's appropriate for them or anyone else in your home.

  • Jess drinks quite often from flasks or straight from the bottle, and appears to be intoxicated with Doc in one scene (he also drinks a few times), and again in another later scene.
  • Slim drinks two shots of bourbon and then goes back to drinking his beer.
  • Willis and Louise drink champagne.
  • Various people drink (beer and liquor) in bars and other locations.
  • Doc is extremely bloody after being shot (bloody chest, blood running from both sides of his mouth, etc...). His brothers then have blood on them from trying to help him, and we later see several shots of Doc who's still very bloody.
  • We later see Doc whose face is bandaged and has dried blood on it.
  • Joe has a little bit of blood running from his nose after being punched.
  • A cop pushes his finger into one of Doc's wounds.
  • Despite the fact that they see their bank robbing activity as just another business, and defend their actions by saying that banks are insured by insurance companies who are the real crooks, the brothers definitely have both types of attitudes (although they don't kill anyone and swear not to rob women or children).
  • In addition, there are various other people (bankers, officials, policemen, etc...) who support or assist their activities to get a "piece of the action."
  • Willis comments, "Like mom always said, God hates a coward," to define his actions. Later he says that "God doesn't want me to be legal" despite him trying several times to go straight.
  • At different times, different men refer to women as "skirts" or "cake."
  • There are a few minor tense moments as the guys carefully pour the highly unstable nitroglycerine onto the bank safes.
  • Some viewers may see some of the robberies as tense, but most are played with a slight comic undertone.
  • Doc is mistakenly shot and badly wounded. As the brothers race him to help, he bleeds even more and begins mildly convulsing.
  • Pistols/Rifles/Shotguns: Used to rob banks, and to threaten or wound people. See "Violence" for details.
  • Nitroglycerine: Used by the bank robbers to blow open the safes (that also destroy parts of the banks).
  • Phrases: "Bastard," "Idiot," "Farting around," "Balls" (testicles), "Horny," "Go to hell," "P*ckerhead," "Skirts" and "Cake" (for women), and "Shut up."
  • The brothers make bank robberies look like a fun and easy way to make some quick money.
  • Willis cuts through a telephone cable (up on a street pole).
  • None.
  • Just a few scenes have a bit of suspenseful music in them, while period action and lighthearted music accompanies the rest.
  • None.
  • At least 8 "s" words, 2 slang terms using male genitals ("p*cker), 1 slang term for breasts (the "t" word, but used in relation to a pig), 62 hells, 32 damns, 13 S.O.B.'s, 3 asses, and 20 uses of "G-damn," 6 of "Jesus," 5 of "God," 2 of "God Almighty," and 1 use each of "Oh Lord," "My God," "Oh God," and "Oh my God" as exclamations.
  • Willis and Louise make out in a car (nothing more than passionate kissing).
  • We very briefly see one of the brothers' bare butts as he does a naked back flip (ie. Skinny dipping) into some water.
  • Jess and Doc briefly sing a song that contains the line, "...she's fat and horny..."
  • The outfits some "flappers" wear show just a little bit of cleavage on some of the women.
  • Jess and Doc smoke throughout the movie, while Louise, Willis and Joe smoke just once or few times.
  • Various minor and background characters also smoke throughout the film.
  • None.
  • The historical accuracy of this film in portraying the real life events.
  • That robbing banks isn't as glamorous as it's made out to be in this film.
  • Willis, Slim & Glasscock rob a bank at gunpoint. They're then pursued by some townspeople who chase them and fire their guns at them. Slim is hit (injured) and Willis' horse is hit and goes down.
  • The robbers use nitroglycerine to blow open a safe door that also blows up part of the bank.
  • Some townspeople open fire on the brothers at night (and from a distance) and the brothers fire back (but apparently without the intention of hitting anyone).
  • Jess practices his accuracy by shooting holes in a street sign.
  • To get into a bank, Doc first shoots into its door several times, and then busts it down.
  • Explosions rock two banks as the brothers blow open the safes in each.
  • A woman smacks Jess for something he tells her (that we don't hear).
  • There's another big explosion.
  • The brothers rob several couriers at gunpoint. After firing a warning shot, Willis' rifle jams and a courier goes after him. He then fires a pistol that hits the man in the shoulder and then kicks a man on the ground. Doc then hits two couriers with the butt of his rifle. The couriers then struggle with the brothers over the bags of money (holding onto their legs, jumping on their backs, etc.. all of which is accompanied by "playful" music). One of the brothers hits another man in the face and then fires a warning shot that blows apart a newsstand. The police show up and the brothers fire at them, blowing out their windshield, and moments later a cop is shot (but not killed).
  • Willis punches an oil worker on his dry rig.
  • The brothers rob a train at gunpoint. Willis fires a warning shot through a window (and one shot is fired back) and then throws a "stink bomb" inside to make everyone come out. The brothers then hold their guns on these people. Later, in an accident, one of their crew mistakenly shoots Doc several times, badly wounding him.
  • There are several scenes where the cops physically interrogate the brothers. A cop throws Willis against a wall and then hits him in the gut. A cop hits one of them with his billy club. A cop punches Joe in the face. Another man pushes his finger into one of Doc's wounds, and an investigator punches a corrupt businessman.

  • Reviewed March 23, 1998

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