This could have been great, instead it’s just fine. The Highwaymen invokes classic cinema to establish its stakes and then plays it too safe. If you like Costner and Harrelson, they have never been more Costner-y and Harrelson-y.
1967’s Bonnie and Clyde became a landmark in a series of movies that led the film industry to redefine itself. Its depiction of violence and sex was so startling that it caused Hollywood to dismantle the studio system that had come to define it. Arthur’s Penn’s classic depiction of the outlaw couple Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker firmly immortalized the pair of outlaws, and with it created iconography that to this day informs our impressions of both the legendary couple and gangster movies as a whole.
The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, Saving Mr. Banks) and starring Kevin Costner (JFK, Dances with Wolves) and Woody Harrelson (White Men Can’t Jump, Natural Born Killers) focuses on the tale of the seemingly washed-up lawmen Frank Hamer (Costner) and his alcoholic partner Maney Gault (Harrelson). Together, they come out of retirement to bring down Bonnie and Clyde and end their reign of terror.
This film seems to be simultaneously drawing on and be hamstrung by its more famous cousin. Throughout its run time, we are barely given a peek at the eponymous couple, which leads the audience to draw upon our own Beatty and Dunaway-shaped memories to fill in the blanks. The screenplay seems to assume that we are familiar with the legend of the Bonnie and Clyde and in order for the drama to be of any consequence it sort of counts on it. This is one of The Highwaymen’s biggest flaws; it invites comparisons with the 1967 classic. Where Bonnie and Clyde went out of its way to break down Hollywood conventions and challenge the status quo, The Highwaymen goes out of its way to uphold them.
When I saw the poster for The Highwaymen, featuring Costner and Harrelson as a pair of grizzled lawmen, I immediately drew up pictures in my mind of The Untouchables meets True Detective, and I got excited. Upon watching however I realized that never before has there been a stronger case for the aphorism ‘be careful what you wish for…’. Both men do exactly what you expect but never quite what you hope for.
Costner is reliable as the grizzled senior partner; he’s seen and done some things, but never can we question his integrity. Harrelson meanwhile, is a little more off the beaten path; he’s still a good man but one with his vices and a laidback and affable demeanor. This pairing on screen works as far as you like the personas of the two leads (fortunately I do) but neither actor is especially challenged and both essentially phone in watered-down versions of roles we have seen them in before.
The Highwaymen is solid and unspectacular. It’s a decent weeknight movie with actors you know and like, doing things you know and like. Its problem is that its very existence reminds us of more daring, more creative and ultimately more satisfying filmmaking and it buckles under the weight of its legacy.