A little over fifty years ago, Bonnie and Clyde took on Old Hollywood and won. Arthur Penn’s fizzing, sexy crime biopic made stars of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, hailed a new age for cinema and effectively ended the career of stuffy film critic Bosley Crowther. It’s been a long time coming but the establishment finally have a dull, self righteous response. Occasionally saved by strong leading turns by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, The Highwaymen is the antithesis of Penn’s groundbreaker, taking great pains to remind youthful viewers that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were not nice people. At all. This is counter-counterculture in the extreme.
The film comes from Saving Mr Banks director John Lee Hancock but hasn’t half the energy. Of course, this a biopic of an entirely different ilk and tone to that joyous offering. P. L. Travers mightn’t have enjoyed Mary Poppins but she didn’t resolve the matter with an ambush and rambunctious machine gun. That said, it’s hard not to miss Hancock’s earlier bounce and vigour. The Highwaymen is sturdily made and well-budgeted but oh so slow. Thomas Newman’s score is draining in its dourness and John Schwartzman’s cinematography sucks colour from an already lifeless landscape. Only very rarely does the pace pick up – one car chase does not a thriller make – and only in fleeting bursts. For the most part, the film is measured, mature and a little bit boring.
Costner and Harrelson play former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, a crime-busting double act forced into retirement by legislating governor Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson (an excellent Kathy Bates). When iconic young convicts Bonnie and Clyde (Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert) – ‘cold blooded killers who are more adored than movie stars – bust out a prison, however, Ma is convinced to temporarily revoke her own ban. Soon enough, Frank and Maney are back on the case, albeit now working under the title ‘highwaymen’. Neither is the young sprite who last occupied the role and each comes with baggage and a touch of hostility.
Amid the languid hunt for Bonnie and Clyde – who cameo only in lame re-enactment sequences – Frank and Maney’s relationship transcends to become the sole reason to keep watching. Costner and Harrelson – both executive producers here – bring gravitas to proceedings, weight to the film’s morality and even humour to John Fusco’s soured script: ‘Did you ever think maybe it ain’t in us no more?’ Each aware of Bonnie and Clyde’s rising kill count, Frank and Maney carry with them a profound concern for their mortality. Age is a preeminent issue, as is the changing face of justice. Only with time do they reach shared appreciation for what they have become, allowing them to let go of all they have lost in the process. If this journey never enthrals, the pair remain welcome, thoroughly watchable company.
Stretching across over two hours, The Highwaymen feels long and offers too little respite to sustain itself. It hardly helps that the inevitable conclusion can never surprise, being so well known, and thus loots any chance of tension. To boot, there is great irony in finding that a film so determined to bring Bonnie and Clyde down a peg or two is just as guilty as Penn’s classic when it comes to presenting murder as justifiable. As a companion piece to the 1967 film, this ain’t worth bothering with. You’ll learn nothing new and might well doze in the process. At least it’s easy to switch off on Netflix.