The obvious reference point for "The Newton Boys" is the 1969 comedic Western "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." But it would be a real stretch to make any deeper comparisons between the two.
For one thing, young stars Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke have never claimed to be "the next Redford and Newman," and it would put an unfair burden on "The Newton Boys" to suggest it is much more than just an enjoyable, if somewhat flawed movie.
(Also, it's troubling that U.S. filmmakers continue to glorify charismatic criminals simply because they make interesting characters.)
Still, co-scripter/director Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise") could have picked much worse material for his first "commercial" movie. Based on Claude Stanush's oral history of America's most successful thieves, the film tells the true story of four Texas brothers who robbed more than 80 banks over a five-year period in the 1920s.
The Newtons made their career change to crime after having served time in prison as either ranch hands or cotton-pickers. The ringleader and brains behind the outfit was eldest brother Willis (McConaughey), who claimed they robbed banks only so they could raise the funds to become oil men.
Under Willis' guidance, the Newtons actually achieved that goal. But within a couple of years, they were broke due to bad oil investments and were forced to return to crime - including at-tempting the country's largest train robbery, a $3 million mail train heist outside of Chicago.
Linklater and co-scripters Stanush and Clark Lee Walker attempt to add some depth by introducing other situations and characters, such as Willis's longtime love, Louise Brown (Julianna Margulies), and K.P. Aldrich, the federal agent who pursued them (Bo Hopkins). Unfortunately, that means there are too many characters - most of them too superficial.
For instance, the brothers fall into neat stereotypes - Jess (Hawke) is the rowdy one, Joe (Skeet Ulrich) is the brother with a conscience, and Dock is the dumb but brawny Newton. Also, the pacing's a little sluggish and things bog down in the middle.
Fortunately, the star power helps (McConaughey, Hawke and Ulrich are all particularly charming), and Linklater plays things pretty light, with more humor than you'd expect.
"The Newton Boys" is rated PG-13 for violent gunplay and fist fights, profanity, vulgar references, gore, torture and brief male nudity.