In Arthur Penn’s 1967 outlaw classic “Bonnie and Clyde,” the lawman Frank Hamer was depicted as a buffoon who was kidnapped and humiliated by the gang, and became obsessed with revenge.
As played by the comedic actor Denver Pyle (who would go on to star in “The Dukes of Hazzard”), Hamer was a sweaty fool with a movie-villain mustache — in stark contrast to the stunningly glamorous anti-heroes portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Movies are movies, and great liberties are often taken with the truth, but the characterization of Hamer, who in reality was one of the great American lawmen of the 20th century, was so over-the-top, so egregiously insulting, his widow sued the studio for character defamation and received a settlement.
Now, a half-century after “Bonnie and Clyde,” and some eight decades after the real-life outlaws became famous for all the wrong reasons, John Lee Hancock’s “The Highwaymen” tells the story of the pursuit of the notorious killers from the point of view of Frank Hamer — and who better than Kevin Costner to play a stoic, quietly heroic, period-piece lawman determined to take down cold-blooded killers/undeserving folk heroes?
It worked when Costner played Eliot Ness opposite Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (speaking of wildly inventive fictional takes on real-life events), and it works here. Costner delivers one of his best performances in years as the righteous, sometimes volatile, occasionally self-deprecating but always doggedly determined Hamer.
Filmed in noirish tones of maroon and amber and deep blues, featuring more than a few nighttime scenes shot in the pouring rain, “The Highwaymen” is a great-looking movie, and though it runs a little long and sometimes indulges in overly obvious symbolism, this is a first-rate procedural.
The emphasis is placed squarely on Costner’s Hamer and Woody Harrelson’s Maney Gault, two retired Texas Rangers who are given a special assignment to track down Bonnie and Clyde, much to the amusement of the modern-day G-men who are employing cutting-edge technology such as wiretapped phones and air surveillance to chase down the duo.
On the relatively few occasions when we see Bonnie (Emily Brobst) and Clyde (Edward Bossert), they’re often seen from behind, or in long shots, as they shoot down victims, including a number of police officers, in cold blood — even as the mythology around them grows, to the point where the locals in Texas and Oklahoma etc., believe they’re like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
To which the Texas Gov. Ma Ferguson (a perfectly cast Kathy Bates) says, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”
Costner and Harrelson make a great team, playing a couple of once-legendary Rangers who are thick around the middle and find themselves nearly collapsing after chasing a kid for just a couple of blocks. Frank is actually enjoying a comfortable retirement with his loving and apparently well-to-do wife (Kim Dickens), whereas Maney is hitting the bottle hard and living in a broken-down house with his daughter and grandson — but when they pair up for the obligatory One Last Assignment, it’s classic buddy-movie stuff.
“The Highwaymen” doesn’t shy away from familiar, borderline-cliched scenes, e.g., when the two old coots show up at a crime scene and dozens of much younger cops snicker up their sleeves, we know our guys will be the ones to unearth key pieces of evidence overlooked by the hotshots.
Thanks to the effortlessly terrific performances from Costner, Harrelson, et al., and the dialogue-rich screenplay by John Fusco, even the overcooked scenes are entertaining.
This is not a documentary. No doubt the reality of what happened lies somewhere between “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Highwaymen” — though the accuracy needle most certainly points in the direction of the latter film.
That doesn’t mean “The Highwaymen” is the superior film (it’s not), or it will have anything approaching the lasting legacy of “Bonnie and Clyde” (it won’t).
We’re not awarding this movie extra stars for good intentions or “setting the record straight.” As always, the film, and the film only, is the thing.
And even if you’ve somehow never even heard of the story upon which this film is based, it’s a crackling good lawman tale.
Netflix presents a film directed by John Lee Hancock and written by John Fusco. Rated R (for some strong violence and bloody images). Running time: 132 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park and premieres March 29 on Netflix.