Released in 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde was the New Hollywood urtext: young, sexy, fast, and violent. It’s impossible to view The Highwaymen as anything but a purposeful riposte to that earlier film — a stodgy, old fashioned, purportedly ‘true story’ of the lawmen that gunned down Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. John Lee Hancock’s film isn’t particularly good, but it’s a fascinatingly contradictory work. Portraying former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) as battle weary warriors called into action, one last time, The Highwaymen is a paean to the good old days and the good old boys — to men who knew how to take care of business. The Texas Rangers had been disbanded by 1933, by Texas governor ‘Ma’ Ferguson, who the film castigates for having the gall to put these good men out to pasture. Regardless, no other law enforcement agency can handle Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree, so it’s up to our intrepid heroes to get the job done, here reclassified as part of the highway department so that they can legally carry guns as law enforcement. Never mentioned is the shockingly violent and brazenly racist history of the Rangers — the film skips right over this detail, so as to better bask in the gentle nostalgia on display. Costner and Harrelson are fine performers, and Hancock is a competent journeyman director (although one wonders what a master like Walter Hill could do with this material). The film is an elegy of sorts, presenting history burnished of unpleasant details, viewed through rose-tinted glasses. It’s also deeply conservative and reactionary, with a folksy kind of charm that’s all the more insidious for being mostly agreeable.
The film suggests that violence is acceptable when done for the right reasons — and by the right people. But it doesn’t have any interest in questioning what those reasons are, nor in interrogating whether these are the right people.
The Highwaymen goes absolutely overboard in stacking of the deck against our aged cowboys, while also gently poking fun at their old age. It shows a deep distrust of modern technology, as the then-fledgling FBI agents working at cross purposes with Hamer and Gault are shown to rely too much on it. Simultaneously, Gault is nonetheless fascinated by it and Harrelson’s wide-eyed wonder at new-fangled radios is played for broad humor. Screenwriter John Fusco pays lip-service to the idea of ‘crossing the line,’ but the script mostly celebrates Hamer and Gault roughing-up suspects for info. Here, strong-arming suspects gets results, and Woody Harrelson getting the upper-hand on some hoodlums is presented as a rousing, crowd-pleasing moment. The old man’s still got it! Ultimately, the film wants to wax poetic about halcyon days, celebrating the police force for using whatever means necessary to capture this new kind of criminal. It might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. In contrast, whatever its flaws, something like Craig S. Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete, is a deeply disturbing, conflicted piece of work, one that feels dangerous and doesn’t let its characters, or its audience, off the hook. The Highwaymen goes down much too easy, all the while flattering our preconceived notions with outmoded ideas of chivalry, and with comforting platitudes. The film suggests that violence is acceptable when done for the right reasons — and by the right people. But it doesn’t have any interest in questioning what those reasons are, nor in interrogating whether these are the right people.
You can currently stream John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen on Netflix.