'Newton Boys' Are Early-Century Slackers

Ever since the aptly named "Slacker," his 1991 debut picture, Richard Linklater has been the movie world's foremost expert on lackadaisical youths.

He continued his slacker-studying in "Dazed and Confused" and "subUrbia," and gave it a new spin in the talkative "Before Sunrise," his most sophisticated picture to date.

The trouble with being a slacker specialist is that you may run out of fresh approaches to the subject. Faced with that danger, Linklater tries a daring solution in "The Newton Boys," his latest enterprise. He draws his heroes from a real-life outlaw gang who pulled off an amazing string of bank robberies in a long list of states between 1919 and 1924.

In short, Linklater has made a slacker western - hardly the first in Hollywood history, but still a bold maneuver at a time when westerns are considered box-office risks.

What may give "The Newton Boys" some hope of prosperity is its winsome cast, populated by handsome young heartthrobs like Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, and Ethan Hawke, a Linklater veteran who contributed much to "Before Sunrise" three years ago.

Also shooting up the screen are Vincent D'Onofrio as yet another Newton brother and Dwight Yoakam as the gang's explosives expert; and there are occasional glimpses of Julianna Margulies and Chloe Webb as two of the story's rare female characters.

These are fetching performers, but their built-in energy is about all "The Newton Boys" has going for it. The plot is familiar from decades of earlier bank-robbing sagas - the classic "Bonnie and Clyde" seems to have been a particular inspiration for its overall tone - and neither the action nor the dialogue rings meaningful changes on the genre.

The best part comes at the very end, when elderly members of the actual Newton gang reminisce briefly about their criminal careers. They don't arrive until the final credits are rolling, though, and that's a long time to wait for a movie's payoff.

Rated R; contains violence, vulgarity, and sex.

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