If the coronavirus has you spending more time with Netflix than you’d like and the usual fare of film choices just isn’t cutting it, try one of Netflix’s own film productions to reaffirm your faith in ‘public enemies’ being defeated: “The Highwaymen” is an engaging, cat-and-mouse drama that tells the story of how legendary bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were brought to justice after a two-year crime spree.
It’s Texas, 1934. While orchestrating a prison break to free one of their gang, Bonnie and Clyde kill a prison guard and become ‘Public Enemy #1’. Seeking ‘local justice’ for one of his own being killed, Texas Prison System head Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) asks Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) for a favor: bring former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde.
Ferguson reluctantly grants the request (the Texas Rangers were disbanded after legal parameters were tested by the Rangers’ violent tendencies). As Bonnie and Clyde continue to dodge local police and the FBI while brutally killing anyone in their way, Simmons wanting a “man killer” like Hamer seems worth a shot.
Though comfortably retired, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) is tempted back into action by Simmons’ plea. Notably older and off his aim, Hamer is nonetheless drawn to duty after a subsequent Bonnie and Clyde shootout with police awakens Hamer’s innate sense of justice. Under a special state license granting him authority, ‘Highwayman’ Hamer is sent off to bring down the Barrow Gang and asked to recruit his former Ranger colleague Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) along the way.
Normally, the old gunslinger thrown back into action scenario would turn cliché, but done well it works…and “Highwaymen” works: think of it as Costner’s “Unforgiven.” Also, the teaming of Hamer and Gault works as a buddy road movie, and Costner and Harrelson have a good camaraderie. As older men with the odds stacked them in a world where their 12-gauges have been replaced with tommy guns, they make a good team.
Originally, “The Highwaymen” was a project developed to be the third on-screen pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Both liked the script but, when Newman fell ill, they dropped out. After watching “Highwaymen,” you can see how it suited them: Hamer is low-key, tasked to outthink criminals to catch them; Gault’s the supportive sounding board and social liaison used to get information.
Though Newman probably would have played Hamer to Redford’s Gault, it could have been the opposite and worked. John Fusco’s (“Young Guns”) script allows each to get his scene: just watch when Costner as Hamer tells Clyde Barrow’s father (William Sadler) of the betrayal that made him a lawman or Harrelson as Gault telling police officers the story of a Ranger raid and a 13 year-old’s death that haunts his dreams and you’ll see why. Though they’re not Newman/Redford, Costner and Harrelson are formidable alternates.
Also noteworthy is director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) providing a neat angle in his depiction of Bonnie and Clyde. As we follow Hamer and Gault, we also see what the Barrow Gang’s up to in parallel scenes shot with enough distance to make the bank robbers feel as enigmatic as their legend. Also, adding to the folklore feel, Hancock filmed the final confrontation with Bonnie and Clyde at the actual location in Louisiana.
Whether as homage to overcoming obstacles or a reminder to persevere beyond perceptions, “The Highwaymen” gives us the fact-based hope that even the most insidious eventually meets its end.