Picks and Pans Review: The Newton Boys

updated 04/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1998 01:00AM

Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Julianna Margulies

After his recent disappointing outings in Contact and Amistad, pretty boy McConaughey gets to show his stuff here, proving he indeed has real movie star appeal, at least when playing a charming rogue. In The Newton Boys, a genial crime drama based on real persons and events, McConaughey is terrifically likable as the cocky leader of the most successful bank-robbing gang in the U.S. The Newton Boys were four brothers who, having grown up dirt poor in rural Texas, opted for robbing banks over picking cotton. Between 1919 and 1924, they methodically held up more than 80 banks in Texas, the Midwest and Canada without getting caught and without killing anyone. It was only after they stole $3 million from a mail train, the largest train robbery ever in America, that they were arrested, tried and sentenced to minor time.

Director-cowriter Richard Link-later, in a departure from his previous films about gen Xers (Slackers and Dazed and Confused), shows considerable appreciation for both period details and his Texas locale but fails to bring either the narrative or the characters into sharp enough focus. Unlike, say, Bonnie and Clyde, The Sting or even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, films that The Newton Boys evokes, this movie doesn't really go anywhere. These guys rob banks and have fun doing it ("Ain't this a hell of a way to make a living?" one Newton brother jovially asks an engineer on the train he's robbing), but there isn't a greater truth being told.

As McConaughey's sibs in crime, Hawke and Ulrich each do well in several telling scenes, but the always reliable Vincent D'Onofrio is short-changed by an underwritten role. ER's Margulies, playing McConaughey's lady friend, proves plucky and looks swell in period costumes. (PG-13)

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