Do people still ride the rails? I suppose they must, and yet the romantic image of the hobo has been replaced by New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s attacks on panhandlers. We live in such an untrusting time that we assume even the homeless are working an angle. That’s why the opening shots of “Kansas” are so arresting: We see a kid running along beside the train tracks, trying to hop up into the open door of a freight car, and then another kid inside gives him a hand.
Matt Dillon plays the young man who is already on board, and somehow he looks at home, riding the rails. He seemed like the most contemporary of teenagers in his early films like “Over the Edge,” “Tex” and “Rumble Fish,” but lately he seems like some lanky character from the Depression era, an actor in training for the remake of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Maybe, looking at him, they wrote in the train scene.
It would have seemed more likely for Andrew McCarthy to be a hitchhiker at the entrance to an interstate, and Dillon to be a kid in a car - a stolen car.
Dillon says he knows a town not far along the line where they can find a friendly reception. McCarthy, broke and unmotivated, goes along for the ride. It is not until they are halfway through a bank robbery that he even quite realizes what Dillon has in mind. This whole early section of the film is interesting because of its audacity - Dillon as the cool outlaw, stealing a man’s Hawaiian shirt and then brazenly wearing it in front of him, daring him to say something.