A film review by Craig J. Koban April 8, 2019

THE HIGHWAYMEN jjj

2019, No MPAA rating, 132 mins.

 

Woody Harrelson as Manny Gault  /  Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer  /  John Carroll Lynch as Lee Simmons  /  Kim Dickens as Gladys Hamer  /  Kathy Bates as Governor Ma Ferguson  /  Thomas Mann as Ted Hinton

Directed by John Lee Hancock  /  Written by John Fusco

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

When cinephiles think of the Depression era criminal ways of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker it's pretty easy to deduce that Arthur Penn's iconic Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway starring 1960's film probably comes immediately to their minds.  That fifty-plus year old classic deserves its legendary status in the industry, most specifically for how incomparably important it was for the then New Hollywood culture.  That, and there have been oodles of other Bonnie and Clyde centric efforts added to the mix over the decades, a majority of which mostly glamorized the bank robbing couple as folk anti-heroes as opposed to murderous thieves. 

That last comment is not a petty shot at Penn's historical caper film (which is one of my favorites of its decade), but rather to serve as an effective lead in to the new Netflix original film THE HIGHWAYMEN, which takes a decidedly different and fresh take on the story of the Tommy Gun wielding couple.  Instead of showcasing this on-the-lam team as misunderstood misfits that robbed from banks and gave to the poor and downtrodden, John Lee Hancock's (THE FOUNDER and THE BLIND SIDE) film follows the story of the men behind the scenes that were instrumental in tracking and bringing them ultimately down.  Most compellingly and atypically, THE HIGHWAYMEN never glorifies Bonnie and Clyde either and instead elects to portray them for what they were: homicidal crooks.  Just about everyone knows who Bonnie and Clyde were, but how many out there could name the Texas Rangers that brought them down?  

Not many, I assume. 

 

 

The Texas Rangers in question are Frank Hamer and Manny Gault (played rather terrifically by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson respectively), which Hancock's film hones in on almost exclusively (in a welcome move, the filmmaker also doesn't physically show Bonnie and Clyde all that much, other than in fleeting shots from behind or from far away, which adds to the demythologizing of their Robin Hood-like celebrity stature and brings them more effectively down to earth).  THE HIGHWAYMEN opens in 1934 well after the couple has been on the run for two years (the opening scenes also show them daringly break out a couple of their fellow crooks from the Eastham Prison farm in Texas).  After this, Governor "Ma" Ferguson (a perfectly cast Kathy Bates) decides that enough is enough with her realization that she must utilize special talent to see this elusive pair brought to justice.   

First on her list to recruit is Hamer, who initially doesn't want anything to do with the manhunt, seeing as he's retired to a quaint and quiet life with his wife (Kim Dickinson). However, when he begins to hear details of the couple's bloodthirsty and ruthless manner of killing anyone that gets in their way, Hamer decides that it would be irresponsible to not lead the charge of apprehending these dangerous criminals.  Predictably, he is forced, in turn, to recruit his ex-partner in Gault, who is now living penniless, unemployed, and in slum-like conditions.  Both Hamer and Gault have things to prove, more specifically the latter, who has had great difficulty reconciling some of his more questionable ethics as a law enforcement official in the past.  Nevertheless, both men are driven by a deeply entrenched yearning to right their own past occupational wrongs as well as ensuring that justice is served swiftly for this couple that, in their mind, have been improperly propped up in the public eye as fighting for the little people heroes, which angers them to no end. 

Again, the one aspect that THE HIGHWAYMEN really excels at (that also helps chiefly segregate itself apart from a very large pack of Bonnie and Clyde films) is its other side approach to the mythical stature of the criminals.  Screenwriter John Fusco (YOUNG GUNS and HIDALGO) is more fascinated with the Rangers' manhunt itself, which stretched multiple states and, through good old fashioned bruise knuckled police work, managed to bring Bonnie and Clyde's reign of bank robbing and murdering terror to a rightful close.  In many respects, THE HIGHWAYMEN could be aptly painted as a, well, pretty paint-by-numbers fact based police procedural, but I'm more willing to give it a pass because of Hancock and Fusco's insistence to re-examine this whole historical narrative down to its gritty essence.  Perhaps if there's an area where the film flounders a bit is in its depiction of how an economically ravaged America of the era found it easy to latch on to and prop up Bonnie and Clyde as righteous movie stars that stuck it to the very financial institutions that wronged so many countless people.  THE HIGHWAYMEN captures the public and media's insatiable adoration for Bonnie and Clyde coverage without going too deep into exploring its darker psychological underbelly. 

But, still, this film isn't really about Bonnie and Clyde and the public's appetite for them at all, but rather the combined efforts of law enforcement - led by Hamer and Gault - to do everything in their power to find and stop these criminals.  Fusco's script is pretty ambitious in how much detail it goes into when it comes to Hamer and Gault's lives, not to mention that if offers a broader dissection of just how bleak things were for an extremely nightmarish time in American history.  There's a wonderful low key and old school vibe about THE HIGHWAYMEN; it's shot with a no-nonsense aura of immediacy and economy by Hancock (the film looks like something Clint Eastwood was born to make), not to mention that he evokes a quietly powerful look at the desolate Depression era landscapes that seems to feed into everyone's growing unease about everything around them.  That, and Hancock is ultimately aiming for his film to be a relatively straightforward, but nonetheless enthralling tale of good guys and bad guys, with emphasis on the men on the side of the law that faced ample and obtrusive media pressures of trying to apprehend an outlaw pair that became coveted by average citizens the same way reality stars are today.  Somewhat akin to Penn's film, THE HIGHWAYMEN is set in the past, but it speaks thoughtfully about timely themes that affects us now. 

Plus - big plus, actually - watching the dialed in and understated charisma and chemistry of the efficiently paired Costner and Harrelson here is one of the film's sublime pleasures.  Harrelson is his usual sardonic, yet soulful self here, portraying a man that's both driven by honor and duty towards his job while suffering on the inside because of countless hardships.  Costner in particular is a standout here, mostly because I've always found him to be a plain-spoken, yet empowered and undervalued actor that carries great on-screen presence without saying too much or engaging in histrionic performance particulars.  He's in pure gravel-voiced and gnarly scenery chewing mode here without making any efforts to steal the spotlight away from his co-star (also, it's kind of a full circle treat to see the actor in 1930's garb as a officer of the law, which harkens back to his famous role in THE UNTOUCHABLES).  There's just something relaxed and inviting about what Costner and Harrelson bring to the collective table here; watching them is almost like putting on a pair of warm and well worn gloves as we witness this crackerjack and aging team of rangers take names and kick ass to get their job done. 

Let's get one thing perfectly clear in closing: THE HIGHWAYMEN never attains the high artistic benchmark achievement of Penn's 1967 film, not to mention that it's not going to permeate the larger pop and movie counter culture like that film did either.   Stylistically, Hancock's film is journeymen-like, which pales in aesthetic comparison to Penn's iteration of the events in question.  Yet, that doesn't make THE HIGHWAYMEN less worthy of a watch as companion piece and a thematic and narrative counterpoint to BONNIE AND CLYDE.  It utilizes a vastly different lens by which to look at and explore the mythic stature of infamous criminals, and the film also wisely reminds us of how - both then and now - we perhaps shed too much of a spotlight on killers than we do the people that are driven to stop their malicious ways, and THE HIGHWAYMEN wisely reminds us that we should be giving the good guys their due in reality based stories like this. 

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