The Highwaymen Review

John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen is a poster child for Netflix Originals when it comes to noting how “unparalleled creative freedom” isn’t always beneficial. Cinematography paints an early 1900s Texas frontier where Wild West lawlessness gets a Tommy Gun upgrade, and performances are as prolific as the names attached, but oh how dusty a biographical drama that cannot sustain over 120 minutes. Breathless prairies with Dust Bowl destitution become repetitive; characters over explained after we’ve already established persona, motivation, and presence. Hancock’s dramatic retelling is a slow, sluggish boar without a leash, inching closer and closer to known finality. A less-than-exciting homage despite scenic reverence paid in listless, contemplative stares that mull the distressing fame of Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert).

Kevin Costner stars as stony lawman Frank Hamer, whose ranger outfit was retired under the order of Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates). He’s approached by official Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) with an opportunity – end Bonnie and Clyde’s murderous reign. Not the crack shot or physical specimen he used to be, Hamer loads his wife’s Ford with an arsenal of weapons and permits partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) to tag along. Two old-timers with nothing to lose and everything to prove on a quest to stop America’s most notorious criminals – and this is how they did it.

Costner and Harrelson in the same film? Lick your chops, performance aficionados. Character acting is on prime display in The Highwaymen as Costner fights tooth and nail to justify Texas Rangers reinstatement with Harelson by his side. Two fogies who’re blown away by wiretapping technology, marvel at radio devices, and hobble after criminals on foot while gasping for air. Transplants from a bygone era who require constant urination breaks (actual necessity to plotting) but aren’t out to pasture just yet. Costner’s long gazes blister with a shooter’s accepted guilt while Harrelson’s sidekick usefulness as Grandpa Detective cracks a quicker shot than rifle rounds.

For those who don’t know, Frank Hamer’s estate never forgave 1967’s Bonnie And Clyde for the officer’s “false” portrayal – hence Hancock’s passionate desire to honor the man wife Gladys (played by Kim Dickens) loved, cared for, and supported. The Highwaymen is about Hamer’s prodding investigation, not Bonnie and Clyde’s violent killing spree. We already know how that ordeal starts and ends, with John Fusco’s screenplay opening on the infamous “Eastham Breakout” of 1934. Beginnings to an end, which Hancock wrings for every drop of sweaty Texas grit but far too dry.

Hamer’s bloodhound bounty hunting is an ode to the Texas Rangers outfit – “modern” cowboys at the time. Good ol’ soldiers who nary crack a smile on their leathery faces and sternly map their target’s tracks from Iowa to Arkansas to Louisiana, so sickened by the fanfare surrounding countless innocent deaths (many lawmen). Crowds welcome Bonnie and Clyde like patron saints of the poor, as Hancock hones on poverty-stricken tumbleweed towns but never minces Hamer’s words concerning the hardened criminals. Such stakes, juxtaposed definitions of cruelty, but intrigue barely achieves an aggravated boil. No matter John Schwartzman’s sprawling top-rate southern cinematography as Hamer and Gault make many an isolated pitstop surrounded by mountain regions, deserted foothills, and dehydrated scenic landscapes.

Hancock’s contemplation of the scenario elongates shots and draws out the expected. Bonnie and Clyde’s pattern of anarchistic “payback” plays on loop, same as Hamer’s steely and silent frustration. The Highwaymen is a film of few words, somber pans, and gunsmoke actions – but there’s a shaved-down version under the 100-minute mark better suited for audiences. Historical importance not to be denied – flipped perspectives provide newfound insight – but Hancock’s passion for material leads to an overstuffed turkey filled with crumbly, dry-as-burnt-toast breading. Even considering a very Inglorious Bastards end riddled with bullet holes.

Students of criminal justice and Americana history are Netflix’s target demographic here, despite such an iconic and loaded six-shooter cast (including Thomas Mann, Jesse C. Boyd and more). John Lee Hancock’s intentions are honored and pure, reclaiming Hamer’s status as “hero” in this tragic record of senseless bloodshed, but the celebrity commentaries and aimed crosshairs miss a more significant mark of meaty execution. At times, a thrilling cat-and-mouse game punctuated by Costner’s matter-of-fact punch or Harrelson’s smirk (Thomas Newman’s score twangs another high). At others, like reading a history textbook lined by breathtaking pictures but with blocky content far too dense and lengthy to hold attention. Equal parts impressive and unwieldy – but only for so long.

/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Matt is an NYC internet scribe who spends his post-work hours geeking about cinema instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don't feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged).