In 1934, two former Texas Rangers come out of retirement to hunt down notorious outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, whose bank robberies during the Great Depression and killing spree across several states made them celebrities. “The Highwaymen” tells the point of view of legendary detectives Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who use their veteran skills, smarts and wit to do their job.
As grizzled lawmen who set out to capture the most notorious criminals in the country, Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are in their wheelhouse, comfortable in these roles and with each other.
“The Highwaymen,” which was released in theaters before it began streaming on Netflix March 29, is a thoughtful portrayal of career law enforcement, honorable men who took their jobs seriously and were good at it. Hamer was known for trying to get inside the criminal’s mind, to interpret and predict behavior – and was a sharpshooter as well.
In the acclaimed 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” which romanticized the infamous cold-blooded killers, the investigators were made to look like buffoons – Denver Pyle screwing up while “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” played during a Barrow gang escape.
What makes this film enjoyable is the old cowboys’ instincts and their time spent together as director John Lee Hancock unfolds a fascinating but little-known true story. Hancock, who deftly directed “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” strikes an authentic tone throughout the 132-minute running time. He concentrates on the hunt and not the hunted – using interesting angles to show Bonnie and Clyde so they’re not the sole focus: a snazzy pair of red shoes, waiting in a ‘34 Ford while smoking a cigarette, the blazing Tommy guns from a wide angle.
The rural landscape and grittiness of the dirt-poor Southerners adds to the pitch-perfect period details, while not glamourizing or glossing over the era. Beautifully shot by John Schwartzman, “The Highwaymen” meticulously sets the scene. They use a dirt road where Bonnie and Clyde met their fate. Punctuating the action effectively is Thomas Newman’s music score.
A few performers stand out in small but integral roles – Kathy Bates as Texas Gov. Ma Ferguson and Kim Dickens as Hamer’s society maven wife, with John Carroll Lynch as the head of prisons.
For true crime fans, this is a story waiting to be told, made stronger by the headlining well-cast old pros. Costner and Harrelson are willing to project a hard-fought wisdom while showing they still got game, which makes the film all the more appealing.