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'The Highwaymen' review: Costner, Harrelson star in compelling 'Bonnie and Clyde' update

Woody Harrelson, left, and Kevin Costner in

 Woody Harrelson, left, and Kevin Costner in Netflix's "The Highwaymen." Credit: Netflix

THE MOVIE “The Highwaymen” 

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT In the early 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow captured the public imagination like few other outlaws of the “public enemy” era. Young lovers with fashionable outfits and heavy artillery, they pulled off a multistate crime spree of robberies and holdups, smartly outrunning the law and becoming the Robin Hoods of the Great Depression — even when their gang left dead policemen in their wake.

Eventually, a couple of former Texas Rangers were brought in to stop Bonnie and Clyde the old-fashioned way: Hunt them down and kill them. “The Highwaymen,” a Netflix original film, tells how Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) spent months tracking their prey until finally cornering them on a rural Louisiana road in May of 1934.

MY SAY Bonnie and Clyde owe much of their fame to “Bonnie and Clyde,” Arthur Penn’s highly glamorized biopic from 1967. In the title roles, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty served as sexy stand-ins for the hippie generation, flouting the law and conventional morality, while the authorities looked like cowards and murderers. Penn’s film divided audiences into harrumphing oldsters and with-it youngsters, perhaps much the way the real outlaws did some 85 years ago.

”The Highwaymen” feels like a corrective to the Bonnie and Clyde myth and to Penn’s movie in particular. Our heroes this time are the oldsters, Hamer and Gault, relics from a bygone age of moral certitude and rough justice. They’re dismayed by modernity — by the Bonnie look-alikes who parade the streets in slim dresses and jaunty berets, by the media’s fawning coverage of the killers and even by young FBI agents with their newfangled crime-scene methods. Hamer is ably played by a no-nonsense Costner, though the role seems to cry out for a mid-period Clint Eastwood; Harrelson has more fun with Gault, a garrulous charmer who loves a drink.

Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) treats Bonnie and Clyde the way some have proposed we treat mass shooters: He denies them attention. He hides their faces so we never see them clearly until the film's final bloody minutes. He also wants to show us just how ruthless they could be: In one scene, Bonnie shoots a wounded policeman point-blank, pausing first to coo, “Hi, sweetie.” Hancock and screenwriter John Fusco may have chosen their own myth here, however, by basing this scene on eyewitness testimony that later unraveled. What's more, according to the FBI, it was Clyde, not Bonnie, who was wanted for murder.

“The Highwaymen” makes for a reasonably compelling and richly detailed procedural with two fine leads in appealingly crusty roles. Its ending comes with notes of sorrow and regret; the young deputy Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who knew Bonnie in her youth and helped ambush her, provides the movie with a conscience. “The Highwayman” gives us an interesting new angle, but far from the last word, on Bonnie and Clyde.

BOTTOM LINE A compelling period piece that flips the script on two near-mythical outlaws.

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