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Film Reviews Review: The Highwaymen is Netflix’s bland answer to a Bonnie and Clyde question that nobody asked

John Lee Hancock's The Highwaymen, starring Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner as the police on the other side of the Bonnie and Clyde story, appeals to a male Netflix demographic of a certain age and political persuasion.

Merrick Morton/Netflix

  • The Highwaymen
  • Directed by: John Lee Hancock
  • Written by: John Fusco
  • Starring: Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson
  • Classification: N/A
  • 132 minutes

rating

Woody Harrelson as Maney Gault and Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer in The Highwaymen (2019).

Merrick Morton/Netflix

There is a joke floating around certain corners of Twitter that the entertainment industry is only one White House administration away from producing a remake of Easy Rider – but this time recasting the heroes as the rednecks who kill Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s counterculture heroes. The Highwaymen, a retelling of Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic film Bonnie and Clyde from the point of view of the lawmen who shot the pair to death, is this cynical gag brought to odious life.

Not to lionize the real, murderous deeds of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, but are today’s audiences so belatedly morally enraged that there was a clamouring for a law-and-order corrective to Penn’s transgressive work? What’s more: If such a thing was necessary, why did the result have to be so dull? And despite its US$49-million price tag, why does it look like it cost a tenth of that? (Don’t even attempt to wrap your head around the fact that Penn’s film cost, in today’s dollars, roughly $19-million.)

These are questions that only Netflix, which snapped the title up after it was stuck in production hell inside Universal Pictures, can answer. Maybe the streaming service determined that a large portion of its audience consisted of dads. More specifically: dads of a certain age (post-50) and conservative sensibility (their favourite show is True Detective, but only Season 1, and their favourite filmmaker is Taylor Sheridan, but they don’t tend to pay attention to credits). These are the Netflix subscribers, I imagine, who only want to chill (but not that kind of chill) on a Sunday night while watching Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson shoot the breeze in-between shooting scoundrels. No subversion or complicated ideas about masculinity and violence necessary.

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For whatever reason, The Highwaymen exists. And for more obvious reasons (re: money), director John Lee Hancock convinced Costner and Harrelson to shed their collective charisma and join the shaggy, shabby project as real-life partners Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the most feared and cardboard-stiff Texas Rangers to ever patrol the land.

There are so many missteps that Hancock and screenwriter John Fusco (2017′s born-again Christian drama The Shack) make here, but to list a few briefly: The dialogue is 85-per-cent clumsy exposition, the heroes are given exactly one character trait each (Gault’s a drunk, Hamer’s a jerk) and the film’s politics read as MAGA-esque vigilante evangelicalism (the movie is perpetually on the verge of having Hamer say, directly to the camera, something along the lines of, “the only good criminal is a dead criminal”).

Perhaps The Highwaymen is just an excuse for Netflix to stick it to Penn and the other mavericks who changed cinema, instead of just streaming it. After all, the original Bonnie and Clyde starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty is nowhere to be found on the streaming service. What is available, though: the 2013 movie Bonnie & Clyde, starring Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch. If you only realized that was a real thing at this very moment, then welcome to my journey. The modern film landscape, it can be criminal.

The Highwaymen opens March 22 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto before becoming available March 29 on Netflix

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