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The Highwaymen

Year: 2019
Production Co: Casey Silver Productions
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: John Fusco
Cast: Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Thomas Mann, William Sadler

Strange though it may seem, this movie reminded me of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Take the almost-throwaway line from the opening crawl of Star Wars about how a group of spies stole the plans to the Death Star, give it 40 years to gestate in the cultural consciousness that made Star Wars the biggest entertainment property the world's ever seen, and suddenly it's viable to make a whole movie about it.

In the same way, the finale massacre of Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn's 1967 biopic of their exploits has become just as deep seated in movie lore. As many might have long asked themselves, what kind of preparation went into tracking Barrow and Parker down and springing that trap, and who are the men who executed it?

The Highwaymen is the answer. Former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) is convinced back from retirement by his former bosses and partnered up with hard-drinking Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson). Their assignment is to go outside the official system to find and bring down Barrow and Parker with extreme prejudice.

It's going to be fedoras and Tommy guns across the dustbowl flyover states of Depression-era America as the pair combine traditional policing with other methods that circumvent both laws and the feelings of their law enforcement colleagues who have to stay inside the lines a bit more strictly.

The story is pretty straightforward, and there's enough in it to keep things comfortably in the midpoint between breezy and weighty. There's the firebrand Texan Governor (Kathy Bates) who wants the matter dealt with quickly and quietly lest is wreak political havoc on her popularity, Gault's history of alcoholism and Hamer's refusal to ever let him drive that gives the pair just enough character and interplay and a few more minor subplots and asides to fill it all out.

It's handsomely mounted, dressed and staged and seems to have fairly prestige aspirations. The way it portrays the iconic criminals right throughout the first half (showing only their legs and shoes or whizzing by in cars, their faces always in shadow) seems to be part of a creative statement of intent. This really is the story of the men who tracked Barrow and Parker down, the pair not actually characters but narrative devices to give the heroes their dramatic foil.

But somewhat at odds to the dusty, dramatic sense of history is the tone of a pretty rollicking yarn, especially when you consider the amount of zany humour involved in the dynamic between the leads. Another unlikely comparison I made was of Batman and Robin chasing The Joker and Harley Quinn. As Hamer, Costner is the strong, stoic type with a slightly goofy partner in Harrelson's Robin delivering the odd zinger.

(And who else are DC Comics' clown prince of crime and his girlfriend than barely veiled facsimiles of the famous 1930s duo, whose whole reason for stealing and killing was to rebel and have fun?)

It's no spoiler Hamer and Gault ultimately get their prize, especially if you've seen Penn's definitive telling of the story from Clyde and Parker's perspective, and the sequence is just different enough from the 1967 film to stand on its own – though it does invite another eyebrow-raising Star Wars comparison about who shot first.

After that there's a fairly tacked-on coda about fame for its own sake and how misguided hero worship is in society, one that seems to be wagging its finger more at us today than anyone back then. But aside from the late proselytising, it's a chase thriller with enough drama and character to make you care.

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