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A Spoiler-Free Review of Netflix' 'The Highwaymen'

A thing+-+ happens to your movie viewing once you have kids that I for one have never shaken. It’s the time when you no longer just size up your choices on a pass/fail would-you-like-it-or-not value judgment. Instead, ever new release gets graded on a spectrum. Whether it’s worth going to the theater for, waiting to buy the DVD/Blu-Ray the day it comes out, renting it once it hits VOD or just kicking the can down the road to cable or streaming. Which is why, with more options becoming available all the time, in a few years theaters will only be showing  superhero films, horror reboots, movies where giant robots save the Earth thanks to the heroic actions of the Chinese government (you need those Asian markets) and dramas based on recent historic events starring Mark Wahlberg.

For me personally, I have one hard and fast rule when it comes to whether or not a movie is worth going to the theater for. It has to have one of three elements: Lasers, helicopters (name an action movie without at least one helicopter; you can’t) or swords. (Laser swords are also acceptable, obviously.) So let’s say everyone is telling me how good “Green Book” is, I’ll say fine. I’m sure I’ll like it. But I’m not going to the Enormoplex to watch two really good actors in an affecting period piece based on a true story go on long car rides and talk. That one immediately went into the category of “I’ll wait until it’s on streaming.”

Which brings me to “The Highwaymen,” which premiered on Netflix over the weekend. It’s two really good actors in an affecting period piece based on a true story go on long car rides and talk. And it’s exactly the sort of thing I would skipped at the cinema, but I would’ve missed out. And for me, it’s the best movie Netflix has released to date. “Birdbox” was OK for a direct-to-streaming release. “Triple Frontier” is a good action flick that 30 years ago would’ve starred Chuck Norris and Carl Weathers. “The Highwaymen” is simply fucking outstanding.

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play Frank Haney and Maney Gault, two former lawmen thrown out of work when the Texas Rangers were disbanded, called out of retirement to capture or kill Bonny & Clyde, who had been eluding a multi-state manhunt for two years and killing cops on a regular basis.

That’s it. That’s all it needs to be in the hands of two great performers like this. Costner is hopefully done with the phase of his career where he plays out his jock fantasies as a catcher/pitcher/golfer/football exec because he has never been better. Harrelson is … Harrelson. Like a retirement age “True Detective” Marty Hart mixed with Roy Munson, beaten down by life but with a chance to redeem himself. The rest is your basic hero’s journey story. There’s a crisis. A call to adventure. Refusal. Acceptance. Difficulties along the way. Right down to a visit to a mentor, who in this case happens to be Clyde Barrow’s dad (played by William Sadler who was Heywood in “Shawshank Redemption”), where Costner and he acknowledge they both know how badly this is going to end.

I promised no spoilers and I’ll stick to it. But if you’ve ever seen the 60s “Bonnie & Clyde” (starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty when they were Hollywood royalty and 50 years before they were too vapid and full of themselves to be able to think on their feet when someone handed them the wrong envelope at the Oscars), you know it’s a story of the ultimate antiheroes. A super attractive working class couple who robbed the same banks that had thrown millions of Americans out of their homes during the Great Depression. Well “The Highwaymen” isn’t playing that game. Early on, when a reporter asks the governor of Texas, Kathy Bates’ “Ma” Ferguson (apparently 1930s Texas was woke as shit) if Bonny & Clyde are like Robin Hood she spits fire back at him. “Robin Hood never shot a gas station attendant in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas.”

I’ll leave you to fill in the rest. Even though, as they say, it’s history. It’s a detective story, with more guns than the arsenal scene from “The Matrix” and everyone in badass fedoras. And Costner as not just a manhunter but a hunter, who knows the difference between tracking a dog and tracking a wolf. And how big a menace he’s up against. Even though the people he’s tracking are barely ever seen, which gives it almost a “Jaws” element, with the Midwest prairie lands as the Atlantic.

Anyway, I’ll say no more other than “The Highwaymen” is a game changer as far as Netflix original movies go. And is Certified Fresh on Jerry Tomatoes. You’re welcome.