The stakes are established in an early boardroom scene where functionary John Carroll Lynch regretfully notes there "was a time" when lawmen were free to act however they goddamn liked; to this end, with the outlaws already on the loose, he yanks grizzled, sour-faced Ranger Frank Hamer (Costner, dropping his voice an octave or two) from retirement and hands him carte blanche to do whatever he's gotta do. Hamer subsequently stocks up on weaponry in a comical scene - part-The Matrix, part-Open All Hours - where he singlehandedly empties out a small-town armoury, then reluctantly takes on a partner in the sottish Maney Gault (Harrelson), despite the fact the latter apparently moves "as if [he's] 85". What follows lands somewhere between a fascist (especially fascist?) buddy-cop movie and a retelling of Aesop's fable of the hare and the tortoise: the young'uns - kept mostly in longshot, lest their dangerous beauty seduce us or show up the leads' schlubby desiccation - initially have the jump on the huffing, puffing Rangers, yet the latter exercise their wiles, and exploit some flattering directorial shortcuts, to shuffle on down the road, outmanoeuvre (and eventually outnumber) their quarry, and thereby enact the film's idea of justice.
For a while, The Highwaymen benefits from that anonymous professionalism that has become Hancock's signature: lots of big Midwestern skies, under which men in handsome hats and suits prowl round in period sedans to the accompaniment of Thomas Newman's region-appropriate banjo music. Once it becomes clear that this by-the-book style is all it has to work with, however, the film reveals itself as terribly monotonous and boring: a lopsided, grindingly humourless procedural in which gruff old men growl at or duff up anyone who isn't a gruff old man, ride roughshod over crime scenes, and spit tobaccy at the snowflakey notion of habeas corpus. We approach the kink and ambiguity of the first movie but once, in a scene where Hamer corners Clyde's mechanic father (William Sadler), yet even this sequence ends with Costner growling about retributive violence being his "calling", and pop beseeching his visitor to snuff out his deviant offspring. The sole tension that persists through this needlessly attenuated two-and-a-quarter-hour slog is how that final ambush is going to be handled. It can't be the tragedy it was in '67, because the film has no place in its worldview for Bonnie and Clyde other than as moving targets or sitting ducks; instead, it proves cursorily orgiastic, a brief, prematurely curtailed outpouring of pent-up male resentment calibrated to set NRA representatives everywhere a-hoopin' and a-hollerin'. A blunt force non-climax entirely worthy of not much of a movie, then: kids get what's coming to them, cut to black, that's yer lot. Now get the hell off my land.
The Highwaymen is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Netflix.