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On Netflix: THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019)

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THE HIGHWAYMEN
(US - 2019)

Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by John Fusco. Cast: Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Thomas Mann, Kim Dickens, W. Earl Brown, William Sadler, David Furr, Joshua Caras, Dean Denton, Jason Davis, David Born, Brian F. Durkin, Jake Ethan Dashnaw, Emily Brobst, Edward Bossert. (R, 132 mins)

Chronicling the notorious Depression-era Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow killing spree from the law enforcement side, the Netflix Original film THE HIGHWAYMEN centers on legendary retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (1884-1955), played by Denver Pyle in Arthur Penn's trailblazing 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. As great as that film is, it played a little fast and loose with the facts, most egregiously when it came to its depiction of Hamer, so much so that his widow filed a defamation of character lawsuit and won an out-of-court settlement in 1971. Hamer is presented as a bit of a buffoonish, walrus-mustached punchline in BONNIE AND CLYDE, particularly when he's captured and humiliated by the title duo. In truth, Hamer never saw Bonnie and Clyde in person until the moment he and his posse ambushed them on the side of a rural Louisiana country road and took them down in a hail of bullets. That's the Hamer portrayed here by Kevin Costner, who's introduced in 1934 barely tolerating a mostly forced retirement after the Texas Rangers were disbanded years earlier for their often lawless tactics. When Texas'"lady governor" Miriam "Ma" Ferguson (Kathy Bates) exhausts all other options for bringing Bonnie and Clyde down, she reluctantly agrees, at the suggestion of Marshal Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), to make Hamer a special "highway agent" assigned to essentially hunt down and exterminate the pair.






Joining Hamer is his old partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), now an unemployed drunk living in a foreclosed home with his daughter and grandson. Both men are haunted by the violence of their past and dealing with it in their own ways, and Hamer is hobbled by chronic pain from an estimated 16 bullets still remaining in his body from various skirmishes over the years. Their biggest obstacle in the pursuit is dealing with the movie star-like following that Bonnie and Clyde have with the general public, excited by their Robin Hood tactics of robbing banks at a time when everyone is in dire financial straits, but they seem to turn a blind eye to their brutality and the dead bodies left in their wake. It's even strongly suggested that one naive young deputy helping them (Thomas Mann), a childhood friend of the pair, may have even tipped them off about a plot to nab them at the home of Clyde's father (William Sadler).


Right down to its slightly overlong 132-minute length, THE HIGHWAYMEN has the leisurely feel and pace of a post-UNFORGIVEN Clint Eastwood film, which isn't surprising considering that director John Lee Hancock (THE BLIND SIDE) scripted two Eastwood works from that era (1993's A PERFECT WORLD, which starred Costner, and 1997's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL). As written by John Fusco (YOUNG GUNS, YOUNG GUNS II, THUNDERHEART), THE HIGHWAYMEN has the comfortable, familiar feel of the kind of uncomplicated procedural that your dad would enjoy, and I mean that in a good way. Aside from setting the record straight on the distinguished career of Hamer and paying lip service to the idea of fawning over dubious celebrities (America's women make Bonnie an inadvertent fashionista by copying her clothing and hairstyle, while 20,000 people attended the pair's funerals, mourning them like heroes), THE HIGHWAYMEN is content with familiarity of well-worn cliches and character arcs, like Hamer's devoted wife (Kim Dickens) just wishing he'd stay home and paint the kitchen but acknowledging "I knew what you were when I married you," Hamer flagrantly disregarding Ma's "stay in Texas" orders and heading out of his jurisdiction, a haggard Gault seeing the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde as the standard-issue One Last Shot at Redemption, and the usual banjos-and-fiddle soundtrack that's required by law for any crime drama set during the Great Depression or in Dust Bowl migrant towns. The most unexpected decision that Hancock and Fusco make is keeping the faces of the villains largely offscreen, with Clyde (Edward Bossert) seen fleetingly during speeding getaways and Bonnie (Emily Brobst) represented mostly by her dragging, injured left leg.


In some ways, Hamer and Gault almost feel like castoffs from THE WILD BUNCH, stuck in a modern era they don't quite understand and don't want to. Hamer has adapted better than Gault, who has no idea that the FBI can wiretap party lines, which becomes an amusing running gag throughout the film. Obviously, THE HIGHWAYMEN isn't on the level of BONNIE AND CLYDE, but it's reasonably entertaining and the stars are terrific together. It's easy to see Costner's Hamer as a morose, older version of his earnest, "Let's do some good!" Eliot Ness way back in 1987's THE UNTOUCHABLES, and looking past the actor's ill-fated hubris years that gave us WATERWORLD and THE POSTMAN, it's been a pleasure to watch him age into a top-notch character actor in his 60s, where he's carved himself a niche as the Robert Duvall of his generation.


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