Have you ever wondered about the men who brought down the most infamous criminal lovers in American history? Bonnie and Clyde’s rampage came to a dramatic, bloody end in 1934, when they were shot down in their car by local police. The police were led by Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, former Texas Rangers. If you wanted to know the lives and backstories of the old bounty hunters, then Netflix and director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) have provided you with everything you need – except for interesting characters and a well-written story.
But before I talk about that, setting the scene is necessary. In 1934, Bonnie and Clyde (played by Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert, though you almost never see their faces) are enjoying their rampage across the heartlands of America, adored by the masses with a zeal usually reserved for Hollywood movie stars. They’re beloved for robbing banks, living out the dark-sided fantasies for many afflicted by poverty during the Depression. Unfortunately for them, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), the first woman governor of Texas, is fed up with the police-killing crooks, and she’s ready to try anything in order to stop them. One of the men in her cabinet, Lee Simmons (John Caroll Lynch), pushes her to accept his idea: revive the Texas Rangers from their defunct status.
Governor Ferguson gives in, and Simmons reaches out to a living legend among the Rangers: Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner), who’s killed more than fifty people. Intrigued by the chance of finding glory in one last job, he agrees to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. Once he finds his alcoholic ex-partner, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the two of them pack up with enough guns to supply an armory, a map, and FBI files on their targets. They take off, on what will end up being a cross-state hunt that goes down in history. They’re always just one step behind the criminal lovers, but since we know what happened, we know how it’s going to end.
Despite a promising set-up, The Highwaymen fails to follow up on that. It’s the latest in the stream of Netflix movies that were made for television. The flat and shallow lighting cheapens the film, and the standard, by-the-book characters aren’t memorable. Kathy Bates tries, but even here she’s a little lifeless. It’s perhaps mean to pick on child actors, but the abundance of them here are badly-directed by Hancock. They sound like aliens trying to relate to humans. Costner and Harrelson do their “thing”, whatever that is. If you like them, you’ll enjoy them. If you don’t, you’re in for a rough time. The subtext of “new technology vs. good old hard work” is sloppily added via their interactions with the FBI, and the way the film handles the class division in how Bonnie and Clyde were viewed is even worse. It’s shoved in without much thought or care.
Hancock’s films revolve around historical figures, but he embalms them with a sense of history that keeps them from being interesting. His greatest success as a director, Saving Mr. Banks, came the closest to working, due to the charms of Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. Costner and Harrelson aren’t on their level, and The Highwaymen ends up suffering as a result. It’s a typical, flavorless period piece with nothing in its favor.