John Lee Hancock is one of my favorite directors. He chooses untold, true stories. And he allows his actors the space to deliver powerhouse performances, including Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”, Emma Thompson in “Saving Mr. Banks” and Michael Keaton in “The Founder”.
Hancock’s latest is “The Highwaymen”. It features yet another heavyweight at the core of a real-life saga that feels like it should’ve been made into a movie decades ago.
Kevin Costner stars as Frank Hamer, a former Texas Ranger who, in 1934, is asked to track down and kill notorious outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The bank robbing duo has been on their murderous crime spree throughout the south and midwest for two years, becoming bonafide national celebrities in the process.
The pressure to eliminate Bonnie and Clyde forces Texas governor Ma Ferguson (played by Kathy Bates) to bring Hamer, the state’s most ruthless ranger, out of retirement. He recruits former colleague Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) to join him. Together, these two lawmen must use their old school skills to try to defeat these modern day criminals.
Whether or not you know the ultimate outcome of “The Highwaymen” before going to your Netflix account is irrelevant. This film is about the journey, not the result. It’s a straightforward, yet compelling character study, told strictly from the point of view of the lawmen. Screenwriter John Fusco (“The Shack”) impresses with dialogue that feels eerily contemporary. A few favorites:
- Gault, seeing a surveillance airplane above a crime scene, calls J. Edgar Hoover a “coward” for being in the air instead of down on the ground, on the front lines of this chase.
- Gault remarks that “You used to get in the newspaper if you had talent. Now all you have to do is shoot people.”
- And at one point, Hamer tells rookie police officer Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann from “Kong: Skull Island”) that Bonnie and Clyde “aren’t human anymore”.
The script provides moments of subtle suspense and tension that never come off as disproportionate. It also gives Costner and Harrelson plenty of opportunities to hit bullseyes with their performances. Costner nicely demonstrates Hamer’s adherence to his strict code of right and wrong. Harrelson gets to show some restraint as the sidekick, which is appropriate considering the material.
As he did with his previous two films, Hancock places you perfectly in the time period. His trusty team of costume designer Daniel Orlandi, production designer Michael Cornblith and cinematographer John Schwartzman all lend their talents to give us the true essence of the mid-30s, complete with Model Ts, filling stations and the fashions of the times. And if you’re a fan of composer Thomas Newman, his score is satisfying, yet a tad too familiar.
At over two hours, “The Highwaymen” is a ride that does go on a little long. And it definitely skews toward older moviegoers (a bit of a change for Netflix). But the film also provides a nice history lesson for younger viewers, who get to see some industry pros—in front of and behind the camera—excel at what they do best.