Thanks to Arthur Penn in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde will always have a place in cinema’s hall of legends. It’s understandable that others would want to take on the outlaws’ story and put their own twist on the real-life tale. Sadly, The Highwaymen somehow turns this true and exciting story into a drawn-out, sleepy road movie that fails to add anything to their world.
Focusing on the two lawmen who finally stopped Bonnie and Clyde’s robbing and killing rampage, The Highwaymen begins with a frustrated governor. Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is annoyed that the feds have sent their men into Texas to catch the pair and turns to her last resort: two former Texas Rangers who were the best in the business. Frank (Kevin Costner) and Maney (Woody Harrelson) are called out of retirement to go slightly rogue and apprehend the outlaw lovers however they can. Officially unofficial, Frank and Maney are not necessarily bound by traditional investigation parameters. Their status, along with decades of experience, makes them the best hope for ending the killing spree.
Reframing the story around these lawmen and not the famous outlaws comes at the cost of much entertainment. The film intentionally focuses on the real death and terrible suffering Bonnie and Clyde brought to the communities they targeted. Their robberies are largely ignored, and instead we see Frank getting emotional over photos of corpses, and later a scattering of dead bodies in the road. He feels the need to remind anyone he can that these two are famous for all the wrong reasons, and that murderers should not be celebrated by anyone, or protected by their families. As much as he pleads his case, and as much as Bonnie and Clyde’s kills are framed as great tragedies in the movie, they’re the most interesting part of the story.
By contrast, Maney and Frank are dreadfully dull. They talk about the good old days, bicker like an old married couple, but worst of all they overstay their welcome. Very few films are deserving of a 132-minute running time, and The Highwaymen proves this point. By the end, just as things are about to get interesting, we’re inexplicably made to endure not one but two big, emotional, dialogue-laden scenes. Had they added any new dimension to either Frank or Maney’s charactesr they may be valid, but they’re just repeats of things we already knew or already could guess about these two. All they serve to do is stretch out the movie, spoil any semblance of anticipation or tension, and serve as a prime example of shoddy editing.
Costner and Harrelson are good enough in their roles. Costner gets to hobble around and do a close proximity to Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. Harrelson gets to use that exaggerated Texas accent he has perfected over the years, which makes him look like he’s possibly truly chewing on his words. Neither of these actors go beyond what’s asked of them in their emotionally shallow roles. Then again, neither of them are what’s actually wrong here.
It’s difficult to judge a film based on what it is and not what it could have been, but that contrast is even more difficult to avoid when tweaking one of the best known true stories ever fictionalized on screen. The Highwaymen sets out to be entirely different than he stellar Bonnie and Clyde. Unfortunately, it succeeds in all the wrong ways.