Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson
Watch The Highwaymen online in the UK: Netflix UK
“You’ve read the story of Jesse James, Of how he lived and died; If you’re still in need Of something to read, Here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.” So reads Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) in the newspaper, as he tries to track down the iconic outlaw duo. “To be famous these days,” he laments, “you just have to know how to kill people.” It’s a glib, grim reassessment of the romanticised couple, and it sets the tone for The Highwaymen, a film that’s defiantly about a pair of heroes who aren’t part of the Barrow Gang.
The film, which once began as a Paul Newman and Robert Redford vehicle, marks a similarly notable team-up: the first time that Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson have ever appeared on screen together. It’s a dynamite double-act, one that lets each of them do what they do best. Harrelson is sarcastic, jaded, quietly vulnerable and faintly washed-up; a tragic figure who’s less seeking redemption and more given up on it already. He’s wonderfully complimented by Kevin Costner, who’s enjoying a late career renaissance after Hidden Figures with his work here, which lets him play noble and honest while still rough, tough, gruff and determined.
Costner is Frank Hamer, a former Texas Ranger who, alongside Gault, comes out of retirement to do the dirty deeds that must be done to stop Bonnie and Clyde in their tracks. Those tracks, we’re reminded time and time again, have killed 10 officials of the law and several others, prompting Texas’ first female governor, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), to commission Frank and Maney as special investigators to hunt them down.
There’s pleasure in seeing these two old dogs refusing to learn new tricks, as they bring their low-tech, traditional modes of detection to bear on the case, analysing shell cases and scrutinising tyre tracks. But there’s something similarly plodding in the film’s approach to its subject matter, with John Fusco’s script more concerned with giving both Costner and Harrelson a chance to deliver moral speeches in the dramatic rain, rather than pick up the pace or generate some tension – a more notable confrontation between them and Bonnie and Clyde, or a move to understand their appeal to the nation at the time would have gone a long way (instead, we effectively get permission from one key character for them to pull the trigger).
The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock puts together some strong set pieces – one car chase uses the dust kicked up by spinning wheels brilliantly, accompanied by Thomas Newman’s evocative score – but plays it safe and conventional elsewhere, to the point where this feels more like a film from, well, Newman and Redford’s heyday than a Netflix project in 2019. Fortunately, it’s got an equally impressive partnership at its core to make up for its lack of action or, what would be more befitting of its dour tone, moral complexity. The Highwaymen won’t go down in history as something for people to write songs about, but as a welcome showcase for two Hollywood veterans who look good wearing hats, it’s arresting enough.
The Highwaymen is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.