It’s hard to begin watching the Netflix movie “The Highwaymen” and not think about the way it will inevitably end — in a famous ambush and a hail of bullets. That’s what happened to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow on May 23, 1934, the day the law finally caught up to the couple who had spent years on a multi-state murder spree.
For film fans of a certain age, we’ve practically seen the fatal ambush. “The Highwaymen” is haunted by the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” which had at its final scene a torrent of gunfire riddling Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. That film romanticized the criminal duo who killed 13, and their fatal ambush seemed less like a necessary law enforcement action than a gutless slaying. Now, 52 years later, comes the reverse view with “The Highwaymen,” screenwriter John Fusco’s tale of how two handkerchief-wiping, retired Texas Rangers tracked them down.
If Bonnie and Clyde were the heroes of director Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, lawmen Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) are the ones here — gruff, taciturn and hard-nosed officers. Director John Lee Hancock is so unwilling to glamorize the young outlaws that he virtually never focuses his camera on Bonnie and Clyde, instead using dreamlike filters or odd angles. Like its predecessor, there’s lots of cultural commentary going on in the moody and enjoyable Netflix take — issues of criminal determinism, ageism, poverty, moral compromising and, of course, celebrity.
A cult sprang up around Bonnie and Clyde — including women aping Bonnie’s fashion — and fans gland-handed the pair like movie stars. Harrelson’s character notes that while talent used to lead to fame, “now you just shoot people.” There’s a throw-back, Western feel to the film, with its flabby, creaky heroes begged to come out of retirement, just this once, to hunt down the killers, only to endure guff by the new generation for their old fashioned methods.
“Your time has past, cowboy,” one young officer tells them, revealing that law enforcement has become addicted to wire taps and aerial surveillance. Instead, Hamer and Gault have their gut instincts and tested skills, like looking at footprints in dirt. Hamer knows where to find the duo: “Outlaws and mustangs always come home,” he says.
The film has been gestating so long that it was once going to star Robert Redford and Paul Newman, which raises all kinds of nostalgia issues. (Think about the leads of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” donning fedoras and dark suits, getting into Depression-era Fords and fighting on the OTHER side of the law).
Costner plays his Hamer like a classic Costner role; silent and focused, with a moral charisma and a sly hint of sweetness underneath the grumpy exterior. Harrelson turns in another fine performance, just the kind of sassy, good ol’ boy you’d want next to you on a stakeout. “I’m above ground and ready to go,” he tells his partner. They’re a great odd couple.
The script at times tries too hard — “There’s always blood at the end of the road” is one clunky line — and lingers a little too much on symbols (like greyhound hood ornaments). There’s a very evocative score by Thomas Newman and Hancock’s style is cool and unrushed, letting the miles of highway roll and making his action sequences feel all the more electric when they occur.
Now, when it comes to the end, this film describes the final shoot-out in a very different way than “Bonnie and Clyde.” (Hint, the cops had some honor.) The film often feels in many ways as an attempt to correct history, or at least the previous Dunaway-Beatty-led portrayal of a bumbling Hamer.
But there are moments of beautiful stillness and nicely-filmed sequences — like a nifty car chase in dust clouds — that make the hunt enjoyable. You’ll know how it ends, but this time things are different: The good guys win. “The Highwaymen,” a Netflix release, is rated R for violence and language. Running time: 132 minutes. Three stars out of four.