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'Widows' review: Compelling at times, but ultimately disappointing

Michelle Rodriguez, left, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki

Michelle Rodriguez, left, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki star in "Widows." Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

PLOT A woman whose dead husband left her in debt assembles an all-female crew to pull off a heist.

CAST Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell

RATED R (strong violence and language)

LENGTH 2:09

BOTTOM LINE Compelling at times, though not as high-impact as it could have been.

Steve McQueen’s new heist film, “Widows,” is based on a 30-year-old television show but feels like it was cooked up yesterday. It’s the story of Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), who is in debt to dangerous people and hires a crew of women to pull off a daring robbery. Written by McQueen ("12 Years a Slave") and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl), and featuring a female-led, multiethnic cast, “Widows” promises to flip the usual white male script and still deliver crowd-pleasing Hollywood entertainment — exactly the kind of thing movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Get Out” have done so well in recent years.

The good news is that “Widows” is a fast-moving heist film set in the mansions and alleyways of Chicago. It begins with a literal bang — an explosion that incinerates Veronica’s husband (Liam Neeson, as Harry), his criminal crew and $2 million in cash. We’re slightly skeptical that Veronica could be both a prominent staffer for the teachers' union and the wife of a notorious criminal (with the gorgeous apartment to prove it), but Davis wins us over with another of her flawless, steel-spined performances. We also warm up to her fellow widows: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), now a single mother, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a blonde whose black eyes can finally start to fade.

Worrisome signs appear early in “Widows.” Colin Farrell plays Jack Mulligan, an entitled political scion with his eye on the 18th Ward; Brian Tyree Henry plays Jamal Manning, an upstart candidate running for alderman. But Jamal isn’t the good guy: It’s his campaign money Harry stole, and Jamal gives Veronica one month to return it — or else. Daniel Kaluuya is entertaining as Jamal’s cheerfully vicious brother  and Robert Duvall nearly steals the movie as Jack’s irascible father, but “Widows” gets badly distracted by an overabundance of characters and their side stories.

As we try to concentrate on the main action, questions begin to nag. If Veronica needs $2 million, why not sell just half her possessions? Why would Linda and Alice join a criminal endeavor when no one has threatened or even approached them? Why would Linda’s baby sitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), suddenly join such a risky scheme? As for the film’s biggest plot twist (no spoilers), it’s overcomplicated and frayed with loose ends.

Taken at face value, “Widows” clears the bar for a watchable, often compelling crime-thriller. Compared to the high-impact, table-turning movie it could have been, though, “Widows” disappoints.

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