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Kansas
IMDB Rating: 5.4/10 from 700 votes
Release: 23 September 1988 (USA) /

Kansas

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller
Director: David Stevens,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: A young man returning home to attend a wedding hooks up with a drifter who turns out to be a violent bank robber. Before he knows it, the man finds himself involved in the robber's plans.

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Critic Reviews


Matt Dillon and Andrew McCarthy were two of the biggest actors in teen-oriented films in the 1980s, and rightfully so. Dillon was in The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983), for example, and McCarthy was in St. Elmo's Fire (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986) and Less Than Zero (1987). They turned in good performances in those films. Their teaming for Kansas should have been huge, but maybe it came just a little too late. This was toward the end of the 1980s, after all. A lot of generational change was in the air. Both Dillon and McCarthy made a couple big films after Kansas, and they've both been working ever since, but they've been more under the radar.

Kansas only earned two and a half million dollars on its U.S. theatrical release. That's a shame, because this is a very good film. It's not perfect, but it doesn't deserve being ignored as it has. I think it was mostly ignored in the late 80s, too. I hadn't even heard of the film until just recently. The critical reception couldn't have been too positive, and director David Stevens hasn't directed since. He's still working, but primarily as a very under the radar writer for television. The only person to go on to bigger and better things has been cinematographer David Eggby, who has been the D.P. on Pitch Black (2000), Scooby Doo (2002) and others. This is because Eggby's work in this film has deservedly received a lot of praise. There are a lot of beautiful widescreen shots of Kansas that do much to both establish and complement/contrast the tone of the dramatic material.

Kansas tells of a brief, ultimately tumultuous encounter between two young men, Doyle Kennedy (Dillon) and Wade Corey (McCarthy). Corey is out west, about to hop a freight train--he's eventually bound for New York. Kennedy happens to be in the open-door car Corey is trying to hop, so he helps him jump in. Kennedy says that he's headed to Kansas. He pitches Corey on the hospitality of his fellow Kansans and suggests that Corey stay for a few days.

It doesn't take long until another side--a more typical Matt Dillon side I suppose we could say--begins to emerge. Despite the fact that Kennedy advertised that folks would be feeding them for free wherever they went, he decides to break into to a family's home while the family is at church so they can make themselves breakfast. Corey doesn't flinch, but when Kennedy's criminal behavior escalates, he does. He's "forcibly" dragged into a serious crime. Kennedy and Corey are almost caught. In the chaos, Corey unexpectedly commits an act of heroism. The two lose each other but remain in the same area. Corey just wants to forget about the incident and get on with his life, but he has something that Kennedy wants; meanwhile, the whole state is trying to find the unknown hero, who was roughly caught on film.

Let's get the slight flaws out of the way first. Most of Stevens' previous directorial experience was in television. Maybe as a result of this, Kansas has a slight made for television feel, where that description is necessarily a bit negative (there are films actually made for television that transcend the made for television feel). What that means is that it has a bit of a potboiler quality, with a slight shallowness of emotional investment in the characters. I'm emphasizing "slight" because there's just a hint of this in Stevens' style--something like when there's a "hint of autumn" in the air when you get a coolish breeze in early October.

However, not helping this is that Pino Donaggio's score is extremely maudlin with an "After School Special" flavor. It sounds almost like generic production music for the old Easy Listening radio formats. In my eyes, this was the biggest flaw of the film.

At times, a few plot developments seem flawed, but because of later developments, I think the plot oddities are interesting complexities and twists instead. For example, it might seem curious why scripter Spencer Eastman doesn't just have Corey give Kennedy what he wants and completely divorce himself from events of the recent past--after all, he's trying to start a new life, and that's going pretty successfully. However, Corey's character is more complicated than that. He's not just trying to go on the straight and narrow. That's why he didn't flinch when they first broke into that home to make breakfast. That's why he rides the rails for transportation. The character is more nuanced than he seems.

Another example--there's a reporter who fuels a lot of the plot. He trusts Kennedy at a later stage when it seems largely unjustified. However, two points emerge that explain this. One, he obviously knows Kennedy fairly well given the way they talk to each other, so he might have more reason to trust him than we're shown, even though Kennedy's a bit of a psycho and a criminal. Two, the reporter doesn't trust Kennedy enough to not hesitate until he receives more information. Eastman's script is actually well constructed, suspenseful, occasionally surprising, and neatly ties up most loose ends.

Dillon and McCarthy both play characters perfect for their abilities (which is probably why they played these kinds of characters so often). Dillon is great as a subtle psycho. He seems closer to normal and even-keeled for much of the film, but odd little breaks in the façade keep showing through; this is a guy whom we could easily imagine ending up as a serial killer.

While this is not a film that's likely to change your life, or leave a profound impact that sticks with you for years, not all films have to do that or even aim for it, obviously. This is just a very good thriller/character study admirably set in a relatively unique location. It deserves more recognition.

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