“THE HIGHWAY MEN” IS A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON BONNIE & CLYDE. IT’S A GOOD LAWMAN TALE BUT UNLIKE THE V8 FORDS THEY DRIVE, THE FILM DOESN’T HAVE THE SAME HORSEPOWER
The story of “Bonnie & Clyde” is one of those historical true stories that will get depicted time and time again in movies. Let’s face it as inaccurate as some say it may be, no film is ever going to unseat Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic violent folk-ballad “Bonnie and Clyde” as the “definitive” telling of the crime duo’s exploits. Of course Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” is the two time Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography), that starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the outlaws.
I describe 67’s “Bonnie and Clyde” as having some inaccuracies because the characterization of Hamer (who was played by comedic actor Denver Pyle) was hired to find and gun down “Bonnie and Clyde”. In reality he was one of the great American lawmen of the 20th century. In Penn’s film he was portrayed as an over the top buffoon who was kidnapped and humiliated by the gang, who later became obsessed with revenge. His depiction was so insulting that his widow sued the studio for character defamation and later received a settlement.
Half-a-century after “Bonnie and Clyde”, and eight decades after the real-life outlaws became famous for all the wrong reasons. Director John Lee Hancock presents us with “The Highway Men”. It tells the story of the pursuit of the notorious killers from the point of view of lawmen Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. This time portrayed in a much closer depiction than the 67 film ever did, and who better than acting and directing icon Kevin Costner to play the stoic, quietly heroic lawman determined to take down the cold-blooded undeserving folk killers and to some known as heroes.
32 years ago Costner played Eliot Ness opposite Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in Brian DePalma’s masterpiece “The Untouchables”, it worked for Costner then and it works for him here. Costner delivers another great performance as the righteous, volatile, occasionally self-deprecating but always determined Hamer. “The Highway Men” has a different outlook on the “Bonnie and Clyde” tale that makes it a worthy companion piece to Penn’s 67 Warren Beatty film. “The Highway Men”, attempts to set the record straight about both Hamer and Gault.
“The Highway Men” is the passion project of writer John Fusco (“Crossroads”, “Young Guns 1 & 2”, “The Babe”, “Hildago” and “The Shack”), who didn’t like that Penn’s movie glorified “Bonnie and Clyde” while making Hamer look like an imbecile cop. Originally a version much like “The Highway Men” was set to star legendary actors Robert Redford and Paul Newman, which should give you an idea how long this film has been sitting around. It was picked up again in 2013, where Woody Harrelson was set to star alongside Liam Neeson. Neeson left the project due to the film taking too long to go into development and was replaced by Kevin Costner.
Costner, knows how to play straight laced lawmen and Costner has aged well into the role of Hamer. An interesting choice that director John Lee Hancock made was to never show “Bonnie and Clyde’s” faces until the end of the film. “The Highway Men” depicts the tale completely from the point of view of the two lawmen. We see “Bonnie and Clyde”, mostly as figures in distant, shadowy views. At the end of the film, Hancock smartly illuminates both their faces for the first time within the 2 hour and 12 minute run time. What we see are two terrified young adults filled with shock. At the time of their death, Bonnie was 23 and Clyde was 24. We don’t even see the outlaws during the daring jailbreak sequence that kicks off the story. They are shown as if they were anonymous re-enactors in a cable-TV historical documentary. They are treated as cold blooded murderers, in particular Bonnie who laughs with glee as she shoots police officers pointblank in the face.
“The Highway Men” starts out with a crackling action sequence. But for long stretches thereafter, “The Highway Men” relies almost entirely on the chemistry generated by Costner and Harrelson to sustain the viewers interest, as Hamer and Gault follow their guts and trust their instincts while they methodically follow the clues and connect the dots that was overlooked by other lawmen using new-fangled crime-solving aids like wiretapping and aerial reconnaissance. They can’t really work or move much faster if they tried, as each of them is thick around the waist and easily winded during foot chases. Including Gault who needs to take frequent bathroom breaks, a running gag that never gets tiresome. And yet both men can manhandle younger guys who need to be manhandled when the need arises.
Hancock spends a whole lot of time highlighting Frank and Gault’s odd couple relationship as they exchange long monologues and continue to run into dead ends and random characters along their investigation. In doing so, the chase for “Bonnie and Clyde” is more like a slow creep to the final showdown. However the climactic ambush of “Bonnie and Clyde”, is almost as bloody as the one in Penn’s 1967 film. Arguably more impressive is a high-speed car chase across dusty flatlands that ends with Hamer and Gault being outmaneuvered by the couple. Gault is so embarrassed, he questions his and Hamer’s abilities, asking “Maybe it ain’t in us no more”.
“The Highway Men” has beats of action but it isn’t about heart thumping car chases, shootouts and saloon brawls. It’s about retelling Frank and Haney’s story. For a great lawman versus gangster film head to your nearest hard media outlet or digital media platforms and pick up “Live By Night” from 2016 that was written, directed and starring Ben Affleck. It’s a much faster, much tighter lawman picture, with superb car chases and shootouts if your looking for a more action oriented picture. Or even Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad”, with Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn, which I’m one of the few who is fond of that film.
John Lee Hancock, the director of Dennis Quaid’s “The Rookie” and who took Sandra Bullock to an Oscar win for “The Blindside” directs “The Highway Men”. Both Hancock and Costner have worked together before as Hancock was the screenwriter of 1993’s “A Perfect World”, the Clint Eastwood directed film that starred Costner. As director Hancock boasts persuasive period detail across the entire feature. Except for one goof that I discovered during the movie. As the description of “FBI” is used by the films characters and seen on the underside of a plane in mid air. The events of the film take place between early Feb to May 1934. However the Bureau of Investigation, known as: BOI or BI for short, did not change it’s name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or known as the FBI) until the following year in 1935.
The mythology around “Bonnie and Clyde” grows to the point where the locals in Texas and Oklahoma had believed them to be like “Robin Hood”, where they steal from the rich and give to the poor. The film has a great line, to which the Texas Gov. Ma Ferguson (a perfectly casted Kathy Bates) says, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”. But the new film is such a slow burn that it will be hard for some to stay invested in it. There’s not enough to grip the audience from start to finish. It has plenty of fat that could have been trimmed. Hancock keeps the effort taught for around 90 minutes before it’s excessive length starts to wear the film down.
Costner and Harrelson’s gruff performances are exactly what the roles call for and the chemistry between both leads is there. As much as I love and respect Kevin Costner as an actor it feels like we’ve seen him play this tough hero role before, probably because he has for most of his career. But when the two pair up it just becomes classic buddy movie stuff. The manhunt itself may move at a crawl but the crime procedural aspects are illuminating, showing us a side to the story that we knew little about.
Even though it’s length runs on too long and could have used more trimming to make a tighter paced picture, it’s still a crackling good lawman tale. “The Highway Men” aims to set the record straight with a respectfully celebratory depiction of the two lawmen most responsible for ending “Bonnie and Clyde’s” bloody crime wave. Until the story of “Bonnie and Clyde” is re-told again in future film projects both the Arthur Penn film and the new Netflix film “The Highway Men” makes great companion pieces and will both suffice for now.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)
•“The Highway Men” had a limited theatrical run on March 15 and premiered on Netflix streaming March 29.