The Highwaymen is a respectable tribute to the men who brought notorious criminals to justice, though it's not always the most engaging watch.
Crime drama The Highwaymen, which chronicles Frank Hamer and Maney Gault's pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde, was in development for a number of years and was at one point envisioned as a potential vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Eventually, Netflix got their hands on the project and Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson signed on as the leads, finally giving the film momentum after lingering for more than a decade. There was certainly a lot of potential here for a gripping and captivating entry into this tried and true genre, but director John Lee Hancock and company don't quite hit all the marks. The Highwaymen is a respectable tribute to the men who brought notorious criminals to justice, though it's not always the most engaging watch.
With Hancock at the helm, The Highwaymen takes a classical dramatic approach to its subject matter, which is fitting given Hamer and Gault's status as aging law enforcers wondering if they still have what it takes to get the job done. The end result is a handsome-looking period piece, complemented by the efforts of production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi. The Highwaymen captures a number of 1930s details, transporting viewers back to that era with style and sophistication. The cinematography by John Schwartzman is also a nice touch, giving the film the look and feel of something from yesteryear.
Unfortunately, this also works against The Highwaymen in some respects. While some viewers will appreciate its old school sensibilities, Hancock doesn't necessarily bring anything new to the table, handling the character building moments and occasional set piece with workmanlike proficiency. Despite the high stakes of pursuing Bonnie and Clyde permeating throughout the picture, The Highwaymen isn't always riveting, which at times can hurt the pacing during the 132-minute runtime. This isn't to say Hancock does a poor job directing the film - he more than gets the job done - but there isn't anything all that memorable that'll stick once the credits roll.
Some of the issues here can be accredited to John Fusco's script, which is a little uneven. The writer deserves points for attempting to explore the effects of violence on a seasoned Texas Ranger, but struggles when it comes to painting a compelling portrait of Bonnie and Clyde. The Highwaymen does touch on the couple's celebrity status within the eyes of the general public, but still takes a generally black-and-white approach to the core conflict. Hamer and Gault are definitely the "good guys" here, trying to bring down vicious cop killers. In some ways, this does work for the purposes of the movie (cutaways to some of Bonnie and Clyde's evil deeds underscore the threat they represent), but the infamous duo are largely presented as faceless villains rather than intriguing characters in their own right.
In regards to the performances, Costner and Harrelson ably carry the film on their shoulders, delivering the types of turns viewers should come to expect. The former is a gruff and tough lawman who firmly believes in justice, while the latter is a bit more personable - but still has a no-nonsense streak when the time calls for it. Costner and Harrelson have easygoing chemistry with each other, convincingly feeling like two old friends banding back together for one last adventure. There's a sense of real history between the two that comes through via their mannerisms, interactions, and extended dialogue passages. Sadly, many of the supporting players here (including Hamer and Gault's respective families) draw the short straw and aren't given much to work with. None of the performances here are bad, but outside of the two protagonists, nobody leaves a real impression and are just there to serve specific roles in the story.
All in all, Netflix seems like the proper platform for a mid-budget film like The Highwaymen, which easily would have gotten lost in the shuffle if it had gone against major studio tentpoles or even the incoming awards fare that'll hit theaters later this year. It's a fine, if largely unremarkable, film that will hopefully find its target audience on streaming. For viewers of a certain age, The Highwaymen will probably be worth a watch, but it's far from the best original Netflix film to come out in recent months. Unless one is a serious fan of the genre, time period, or main stars involved, there frankly isn't too much to highly recommend.
The Highwaymen is now streaming through Netflix. It runs 132 minutes and is rated R for some strong violence and bloody images.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments!
- The Highwaymen (2019) release date: Mar 29, 2019