Because we, as humans, have a fascination with famous people on the wrong side of the law, Bonnie and Clyde have become a tale as old as time. They’ve also become glorified figures to a degree and remain a staple of pop culture nearly 100 years after their deaths. Now, we have a compelling new look at the end of their familiar tale from the perspective of the men responsible for bringing them down in The Highwaymen. And rest assured, it’s one heck of an enjoyable ride.
The Highwaymen centers on legendary lawman Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and his longtime sidekick Manny Gault (Woody Harrelson). Both men have been retired for some time, as the Texas Rangers were disbanded by the governor. However, when Bonny and Clyde’s killing spree gets far too out of hand with no end in sight, they’re commissioned as special investigators and hit the road and take down the nefarious duo once and for all. This leads to a tense and deadly game of cat and mouse across state lines as Hamer and Gault try to finally end the killing for good.
The tale of Bonnie and Clyde has been told many a time over the years, perhaps most notably in the 1967 Arthur Penn-directed movie. While they are at this movie’s center, it is not their story. The criminals loom large as a presence, though, they’re used more like the shark in Jaws. Seen very sparsely and used to convey the imminent danger lurking in the background. The focus is on the manhunt and that provides us with an entirely fresh perspective on this well-known story.
John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Founder), a man who has brought his fair share of true stories to the big screen in the past, is in the director’s chair for this tale that has been largely a mystery to the masses, despite being a key part of the larger tale. Hancock has a way of conveying these real-life stories for the widest possible audience. It’s no different here. He manages to weave a healthy amount of humor into a very serious situation with major stakes. The balance is handled well. Too much humor and something like this could come off as tasteless. Not enough and it’s too grim.
Overall, The Highwaymen feels like an old-school popcorn flick in the truest sense. In the days of a bygone era long before CGI and superheroes dominated the movie landscape. A movie that would pass as a blockbuster, even as recently as the late 90s, that puts a couple of bonafide movie stars at its center and tells a compelling story not related to an already existing piece of intellectual property. Don’t get me wrong, I love my comic book movies and franchise fare, but this is the kind of movie that runs the risk of disappearing in the modern landscape. Say what you will about Netflix, but they are putting the money up to keep these things going.
The cast, top to bottom, is stellar and stacked. Kathy Bates, Kim Dickens, John Carroll Lynch, Thomas Mann and William Sadler all play key supporting roles superbly well, but this is a showcase for Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. We’ve come to expect Harrelson to deliver anytime he shows up on screen and here, that’s certainly the case. He’s a two-sided coin as the comedic relief and the story’s moral center. Kevin Costner, meanwhile, is a force to be reckoned with as a man determined to do what he sees as right by any means necessary. It’s an excellent reminder of how great Costner can be when given the right material. He’s quite possibly one of the most underrated leading men ever and he proves why here with one of his best performances in a long time.
There are those who may want something like this to come with more grit, perhaps in the style of Michael Mann or David Fincher. That’s decidedly not the approach the filmmakers decided to take here. That’s not good or bad, but expectations need to be set. It also may run the risk of dragging its feet a little toward the end for certain viewers, though not so much that it’s worth avoiding. Setting that aside, this is a truly compelling tale told in a crowd-pleasing manner that doesn’t glorify these vicious criminals, yet manages to still showcase their humanity. The Highwaymen is another big win for Netflix Original Films who have truly found their footing when it comes to making great movies.