Examining the cult of high-profile criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow through the prism of two ageing lawmen hired to track them down, The Highwaymen is the opposite of 1967’s Bonnie And Clyde. Whereas Arthur Penn’s counter-culture classic is fast, freewheeling and gloriously amoral, John Lee Hancock’s film is slow, elegiac and alive to the moral complexities. What it lacks in fizz and incident, The Highwaymen — enjoying a cinema release alongside a Netfllx run — makes up for in strong filmmaking craft and the chemistry of its two stars, Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, playing men born out of time.
At it’s heart, The Highwaymen is an old-school road movie, a showcase for Costner and Harrelson to play irascible, smart and out-of-touch. Costner is Frank Hamer (played by Denver Pyle in Penn’s version), a retired Texas Ranger living a comfortable-but-dull life with his wife (Kim Dickens) and a pet boar. Harrelson is Maney Gault, a man adrift without the calling of apprehending perps, living in a shotgun shack and haunted by horrors of a previous assignment. As the Bonnie and Clyde circus gains more momentum, the pair are pulled out of retirement by Texas Governor Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson (the ever-excellent Kathy Bates) to bring an end to the humiliating antics.
Costner and Harrelson are the film's biggest asset.
What follows is mostly Costner and Harrelson bickering behind the wheel of a Ford Model T or using their old-school wiles to catch up with their fun-loving criminals. The pair are the film’s biggest asset, their curmudgeonly reluctance to be in each other’s company thoroughly watchable: Costner does a nifty line in world-weary gravitas whereas Harrelson suggests a man who, in his younger days, had a playful streak that has been erased over time. These pair are winded after chasing villains, need constant toilet breaks and one of them has no idea what wiretapping is, but their street-smarts and dogged persistence eventually lead them to their quarry.
Hancock, whose previous films include The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, creates a strong mood, John Schwartzman’s cinematography capturing the Southern American landscapes in golden, elegiac hues and Thomas Newman’s score adding the melancholy and twinkle of its two characters. But Hancock and writer John Fusco (whose long-gestating screenplay was originally ear-marked for Paul Newman and Robert Redford) can’t imbue the film with any original angles or sense of urgency and fizz. There are moments of excitement — an opening prison break out, a car chase across a dusty flatland— but they are too few and far between. Still, the double act of Costner and Harrelson keeps you engaged — even though you know it will all end in a hail of bullets.