The Highwaymen (2019)

2019 #48
John Lee Hancock | 132 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Highwaymen

There’s a fair chance you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde thanks to the acclaimed 1967 movie (or the 2013 miniseries, or one of the other fictional depictions, or just their general notoriety), but what about the story of the guys who got ’em? For all the Robin Hood-esque heroism that was conveyed upon them by the media at the time and then cemented in subsequent fictional retellings, they were still murder-happy criminals. The Highwaymen sets out to do its part in rectifying this by introducing us to Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), a pair of retired Texas Rangers who were reinstated in early 1934 to track down Bonnie and Clyde and put an end to their crime spree.

Netflix has self-described the film as “The Untouchables meets Public Enemies” (they’re doing the job of reviewers for us!), and, while I’ve only seen one of those movies, I don’t think they’re far wrong. Netflix are well known for commissioning projects that are similar to other stuff people like (reportedly their first-ever original, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and produced/directed by David Fincher, came about because statistics showed viewers liked to watch the original BBC series, movies starring Spacey, and movies directed by Fincher), but this feels like one of the most blatant examples I’ve personally seen. Movies like Live by Night and Road to Perdition also came to my mind whilst watching, but it’s not limited to specific examples — it just feels like other movies set in about the same period about the same kind of thing. Well, we might blame Netflix’s data-centric thinking for that, but it’s actually nothing new in Hollywood.

Men of the highway

As a work in its own right, The Highwaymen is a solid period investigative thriller. It’s distinctly lacking the youthful verve and excitement of the ’67 film, which matched the youthfulness of its killer couple, replacing it instead with a slow-ish, world-weary methodicalness, which again matches its central pairing. That could be deliberate, or it could just be another instance of the recurring problem that Netflix-originated content is slower than it needs to be. When police procedurals are slow because they’re focusing on the exacting, gradual accumulation of evidence and data that leads to the downfall of the bad guys, that can be a good thing, and there’s an element of that here; but at other times it just feels a bit tardy. What it lacks is a sense of urgency, which you’d think the hunt for ceaseless murderers would have. We’re told these villains need to be stopped ASAP, and we see them continue to commit crimes as our heroes are still hunting for them, but we never really feel any sense of desperation to get the job done. Hamer and Gault kinda toddle along, as if they know it’s going to take two hours of movie-time to complete their mission so why rush?

It’s not helped by a seeming indecisiveness about what the movie wants to focus on. It’s torn between being a portrait of aged lawmen who may be past their time and a straight-up recounting of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. The former is a theme it only touches on in fits and spurts, often in scenes that feel shoehorned in just to address that subject. I’m not sure it had much to say about it either. It doesn’t come to the conclusion that the old ways are the best, or that they’re not relevant anymore; or that these guys still have their skills, or that they don’t anymore (early on there’s a scene where Costner realises he isn’t as accurate with a pistol as he used to be; that never comes up again) — they’re old, they’re tired, and… that’s it. As for the investigation, I presume it’s been depicted fairly accurately — the film has the feel of a story that’s been structured and paced this way because it’s based on truth. Of course, as we know from many other “true story” films, that’s a foolhardy assumption to make. Still, the final ambush was staged exactly where it really occurred out of a desire for historical accuracy, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that extends to the rest of the film.

Gunning for Bonnie and Clyde

One fascinating aspect of this particular case is how much the public were on the side of the criminals, and have been since (when The Highwaymen’s trailer debuted, I saw plenty of comments from disgruntled viewers hoping the film would acknowledge how underhanded the cops were in how they finally got Bonnie and Clyde! As if it somehow wasn’t fair to just shoot dead these crooks who had killed multiple other law enforcement officers, and innocent civilians, without similar fair warning). Perhaps unavoidable, the outlaws’ celebrity is another theme the film touches on, but only loosely. The populous should probably have been terrified of this viciously violent gang, but that they instead exalted them had a lot to do with the social situation at the time, i.e. the Great Depression, where the banks were the enemy, and Bonnie and Clyde did rob banks. Unfortunately, it’s again a thread that’s not fully unravelled; another facet the film notes is interesting but doesn’t bother to do a whole lot with.

Visually, there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s handsomely shot by John Schwartzman, with suitably open vistas that in themselves evoke a less urbanised time, where outlaws might still be hiding in the back of beyond. There are also scenes in towns and cities that clearly had enough budget to create a large-scale feel for the period. The film reportedly cost just under $50 million, the kind of budget movie studios don’t assign anymore, but it shows why it can pay off: this doesn’t need to be a $100 million blockbuster, but it does need enough cash to dress streets and extras for the setting. Netflix are one of the few still prepared to put money into such endeavours, and it is welcome.

Elsewhere, the film’s musical score was one of the main things that reminded me of Road to Perdition, so I was amused when I saw it credited to Thomas Newman, who also composed Perdition. I’ve commented before how I sometimes like his music but other times think he sounds a bit to similar to, well, himself (his work on Skyfall distracted me by sounding like what he did for A Series of Unfortunate Events), so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise.

On the road to somewhere. Probably Perdition.

Despite all those niggles I’ve listed, The Highwaymen is actually a solid viewing experience. It may not do anything original or execute elements as well as it could have, but Costner and Harrelson are engaging performers to follow around, and the story is inherently interesting enough to hold attention — it may’ve been slower than necessary, but I was never bored. The film has been described in some circles as a “dad movie”, a phrase that was also bandied around about another Netflix original earlier this month, Triple Frontier. I guess it’s being used in a reductive and dismissive sense, but, well, so what? I’m not a dad, nor of the age range being intimated by the expression, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a decent men-on-a-mission movie either.

3 out of 5

The Highwaymen is available on Netflix now.

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Blindspot Review Roundup

Spoilers for my next monthly update: I’ve completed watching all 22 films on my 2017 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” lists. Hurrah!

What I haven’t done is reviewed them all. Indeed, 17 still languish in my review backlog — that’s 77%. (In fact, I’ve only actually reviewed one Blindspot film — The Exorcist — with the other four being from WDYMYHS.)

So, with the end of the year fast approaching — and, with the new year, a new batch of films to watch — I thought it high time I cracked on with those reviews. Here’s a quick roundup of a few, linked by all being adapted from novels, which may be the first of several such omnibus editions.

In today’s roundup:

  • Dances with Wolves: Special Edition (1990/1991)
  • Jackie Brown (1997)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
  • The 39 Steps (1935)


    Dances with Wolves
    Special Edition

    (1990/1991)

    2017 #26
    Kevin Costner | 227 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English, Lakota & Pawnee | 15 / PG-13

    Dances with Wolves

    Oscar statue1991 Academy Awards
    12 nominations — 7 wins

    Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score.
    Nominated: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene), Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design.


    The behind-the-scenes story of Dances with Wolves is almost as grand as the movie itself. An actor turned director whose inexperience led to production delays and budget overruns, leading to rumours the film was a pending disaster like Heaven’s Gate a decade before it (some nicknamed it “Kevin’s Gate”), and the studio who wanted a 140-minute cut having to settle for the 180-minute one that director delivered. The resulting film never even reached #1 at the box office… but still went on to be the highest grossing Western of all time, and became the first Western to win the Best Picture Oscar in almost 60 years. It was so popular that a 53-minute-longer extended cut was released a year later, which Costner later denied being involved with.

    Having not seen the theatrical cut I can’t offer an opinion on which is better, but the near-four-hour extended one certainly feels its length. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — this is an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a large story to tell on a grand canvass; although it’s concurrently a drama about just a couple of people from different cultures coming to interact. It’s almost too big to digest in a single go — I’m even not quite sure what I made of it. You can see why I’ve spent 10 months not writing about it.

    Anyway, I admired its scope and ambition. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it merits revisiting someday.

    4 out of 5

    Jackie Brown
    (1997)

    2017 #49
    Quentin Tarantino | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jackie Brown

    Oscar statue1998 Academy Awards
    1 nomination

    Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Forster).




    Jackie Brown has long been my Tarantino blindspot. I caught up with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction after he was already established and they were regarded as modern classics, then was old enough to see the Kill Bills at the cinema and have followed his career from there. But, for some reason, his third feature has always eluded my attention. My tenth anniversary “heinous oversights” list seemed a good time to rectify that.

    Some people argue that Jackie Brown is secretly Tarantino’s best movie. I add “secretly” there because it gets a lot less attention than the aforementioned movies that came either side of it. That’s not a bandwagon I’m prepared to jump on. To me, it feels a little like QT was trying to emulate what worked about Pulp Fiction without just making a rip-off of his own movie, and therefore it’s a bit of an inferior copy. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie by any means. The eponymous character is particularly interesting, as you’re never quite sure what Jackie’s up to; what her plan is. She seems to be telling everybody everything, but she has to be screwing some — or all — of them, right?

    Possibly I was just approaching the film in the wrong way. Tarantino has called it “a hangout movie”, which he explained thus: “Jackie Brown is better the second time. And I think it’s even better the third. And the fourth time… Maybe even the first time we see it we go, ‘Why are we doing all this hanging out? Why can’t we get to more of the plot?’ But, now the second time you see it, and the third time you see it, you’re not thinking about the plot anymore. You’re waiting for the hangout scenes… It’s about hanging out with the characters.” Personally, I’m not in any desperate rush to hang out with these characters again. But who knows, maybe I’ll get it the second time. Or the third. Or the fourth…

    4 out of 5

    Silver Linings Playbook
    (2012)

    2017 #61
    David O. Russell | 115 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Silver Linings Playbook

    Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 1 win

    Winner: Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.



    Bradley Cooper’s performance — 3.5/5
    JLaw’s performance — 4/5
    JLaw’s dancing — 6/5
    Direction — 2/5
    Screenplay (first two acts) — 3/5
    Screenplay (bit where it suddenly gets plot-heavy and all exposition-y to set up the third act) — 1/5
    Screenplay (third act that seems to be from a completely different, much more conventional movie) — 2/5

    Average =

    3 out of 5

    The 39 Steps
    (1935)

    2017 #60
    Alfred Hitchcock | 83 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | UK / English | U

    The 39 Steps

    This adaptation of John Buchan’s adventure novel is one of the best-known among director Alfred Hitchcock’s early works, and for good reason.

    Galloping briskly along with a running time under 90 minutes, it’s a film where mood, tone, and the wonderful execution of individual sequences are all allowed to trump plot, which is somewhere on the spectrum from unexplained to nonsensical. We follow the likeable wrong-man hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as he runs away from a gang of villains who barely feature. That they have a nefarious plan is outlined early on to kickstart the action; what they were up to is explained in the final scene to give the story some resolution; and in between they’re pretty much just a force chasing our hero. It’s almost like the villains are the film’s MacGuffin: it doesn’t matter what or who they are, just that they want to catch Hannay and so he must escape them. It’s how he escapes and what happens during his escapades that matters to us; that provides our entertainment.

    It almost plays like a spoof in that regard — the plot is such stock spy-thriller fare that it doesn’t need to make sense in and of itself, we just get what it’s driving at. Of course, considering the age of the film, it’s more proto-spy-thriller than neo-spy-thriller. Whatever you class it as, over 80 years since its release it remains rollicking entertainment.

    5 out of 5

    Dances with Wolves, Jackie Brown, and The 39 Steps were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Silver Linings Playbook was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here. Other WDYMYHS reviews already published include Hail, Caesar!, Into the Wild, Nightcrawler, and Room.

  • Hidden Figures (2016)

    2017 #170
    Theodore Melfi | 127 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Hidden Figures

    Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is about three black women working at NASA in the early ’60s, a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

    It’s a double whammy of timely issues, then: they struggle to prove they’re clever and have scientific know-how because they’re women, and they struggle to prove they’re worth treating with respect because they’re black. How depressing that these things are still relevant over 50 years later. That said, any right-minded person watching it will still be suitably appalled that this kind of thing went on at all — even when you know about it, seeing it played out is something else.

    Of course, it comes with a positive message attached: these people overcome their societally-imposed disadvantages to be awesome nonetheless, fighting everyday sexism and racism left, right and centre to eventually prove their worth. Hurrah! It’s a strong message, even more powerful thanks to it being a true story, and no doubt goes a long way to explaining the film’s success. As a movie in its own right, it’s nothing particularly special. There are good performances from a high-calibre cast, but everything else is pretty standard for a biopic — well done, but there’s a reason the film’s Oscar nominations were for acting and screenwriting.

    4 out of 5

    Hidden Figures is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Fandango (1985)

    2017 #22
    Kevin Reynolds | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG

    Fandango

    In this coming-of-age comedy drama, pitched as “celebrating the privilege of youth”, a group of college buddies — two of whom are about to be drafted into Vietnam — go on a final road trip to celebrate their graduation and defer the impending seriousness of adulthood.

    Fandango began life as a student short made by writer-director Kevin Reynolds that just featured the skydiving sequence. That was seen by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, who liked it enough that he gave Reynolds the money to develop a feature film around the idea. But when he saw the finished result, Spielberg distanced himself from it — he even had his name taken off the credits. No idea why — it’s a super movie. If we’re being picky then its structure is a little episodic, but the scrapes the gang get into are linked by arcs that chart their characters’ development, which is where the film has it’s heart. It’s also resplendent with nice little touches, like well-composed shots (for a first timer, Reynolds clearly knew what he was doing), poignant character moments, and some occasionally profound dialogue, too. A sequence that sees the guys fighting with fireworks in a graveyard, foreshadowing the war several of them are about to head off to, is a particular standout.

    Boys will be boys

    Kevin Costner, tearing through Texas as a free-spirited college flunk-out wearing one-armed sunglasses, an increasingly grubby tailcoat, and a shit-eating grin, has never seemed cooler. That almost masks the fact that it’s also a very good performance, actually. It might’ve been forgotten under some of the blockbusters he did, and some of the crap in more recent years, but the guy can act. The lead cast surrounding him is equally as likeable — it genuinely feels like hanging out with a ragtag gang of college mates on their last hurrah. The final act stretches credibility pretty darn thin with what those guys are able to pull off, but it’s nonetheless a suitably emotive finale.

    I’d never even heard of Fandango until the ghost of 82 recommended it to me last year, which is possibly the end result of Spielberg having disowned it. The history of cinema is no doubt littered with these little gems that, for whatever reason, only resonated with some people at the time. One of the real benefits of the blogging era is that we can recommend them on.

    4 out of 5

    Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

    2016 #69
    Kenneth Branagh | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Russia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitKenneth Branagh, who once used to direct films based on Shakespeare and opera and that kind of thing, seems to have carved himself a place as a jobbing blockbuster director so far this decade: it started with a spot in Marvel’s then-burgeoning universe, adapting Thor; saw arguably its greatest success with the live-action remake of Disney’s Cinderella; and he’s now working on an adaptation of young adult action-adventure Artemis Fowl — all released by Walt Disney Pictures, incidentally.

    In amongst those, he helmed this: a second attempt (after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears) to relaunch (after a sortoftrilogy in the early ’90s) Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst-cum-spy (the titular Mr Ryan, obviously) as a Bond/Bourne-rivaling action-thriller franchise. It didn’t work. (Next try: make it a TV series for Amazon.) While I can’t pretend to be shedding any tears over the wasted opportunity of not getting another spy franchise, that’s not for lack of enjoyment: demonstrating perhaps even more versatility than with his comic book adaptation (which was kinda Shakespearean, really) or his Disney fairytale (which was a grandiose period drama, really), here Branagh managed to craft a very creditable action-thriller — with emphasis on the latter, an uncommon choice these days. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t catch on.

    Rather than going back to Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit chooses to relocate Ryan to the present day, and takes its inspiration from a 2007 Black List screenplay called Dubai. Dubai is, of course, a notoriously pricey Middle Eastern city, and therefore we naturally assume rich in oil. Shadow Recruit’s plot begins with the US refusing to veto a pipeline that will damage Russian oil interests — somehow, I suspect there wasn’t too much re-writing required here. Anyway, following this decision, Afghanistan veteran turned undercover CIA financial analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a plot to crash the value of the dollar, which will lead to a new Great Depression. Dispatched to Moscow to investigate, Badass Branaghhe comes up against oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), the architect of the plan, which will be instigated by a massive terrorist attack on US soil. Unless Ryan can stop him, of course — with the help of his handler (Kevin Costner), and his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley), who’s followed him to Russia because she thinks he’s having an affair. I mean, he was sneaking around a lot…

    As I said, the film wasn’t a success, either critically or commercially — despite casting a young, theoretically popular lead in Chris Pine, it didn’t attract the young audience needed to produce blockbuster numbers these days. I guess playing the “thriller” rather than “action” card didn’t pay off, so maybe a TV series is a smarter move after all? I guess we’ll see. Anyway, I think the reaction has been unduly harsh, because Shadow Recruit is very effective at what it sets out to do, and is, in my view, easily the most entertaining Jack Ryan movie since at least the first, The Hunt for Red October. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise: I was disappointed by both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger when I finally watched them in 2014, and I described Sum of All Fears as “an adequately entertaining two hours. Otherwise, it’s nothing special.”

    Shadow Recruit probably isn’t anything special either, mind. Branagh manages to mount a few excellent sequences, including a very tense dinner / infiltration combo in the middle of the film, where Cathy has to keep Cherevin occupied while Ryan nips over the road and breaks into the oligarch’s office, which develops into a solid car chase. The dynamic is also Just going for a runa little different to the action-thriller norm. Ryan has skills leftover from his military days, but he’s not a one-man army like Bond or Bourne — he needs help both on the ground and from tech guys behind the scenes, who play a vital role in… well, I was going to say “the climax”, but it’s “the bit just before the climax”. The climax is a chase around New York, because of course you have to end with a chase.

    This was meant to be a defence of Shadow Recruit and I feel like I’m doing a poor job. Thing is, it’s not up to the quality of the much-mentioned Two Bs when they’re at their best, but its relatively plot-and-character-orientated style distinguishes it from those franchises’ regular MOs. Plus Branagh brings a greater cinematic quality than you’ll find in, say, that Spooks movie, meaning Shadow Recruit straddles the divide between TV-level spying and big-screen action in a way that TV spin-off wanted to but couldn’t really manage. Perhaps the character really will work better in a big-budget TV series, then?

    4 out of 5

    Field of Dreams (1989)

    2008 #38
    Phil Alden Robinson | 103 mins | TV | PG / PG

    Field of DreamsI’ve never made much of an effort to see Field of Dreams, for a couple of reasons. Aside from its famous mantra/catchphrase (“if you build it he will come”), the only things I’d heard were it was mawkishly sentimental and was about Kevin Costner trying to build a baseball pitch for a ghost — which doesn’t sound particularly exciting and is about sport, something I’m not very fond of. Of course, as anyone who’s seen it will know, I was a tad misled on that last point, as the glorified rounders pitch is built in the first 20 minutes. What follows certainly has its fair share of sentimentality, but I wouldn’t call it mawkish.

    In fact, it’s almost unremittingly pleasant. The lack of anything hard-hitting is no doubt why some have such a dim view of the film, as “nice” has become synonymous with “not very good” in modern parlance (I blame Primary School teachers desperate to increase vocabulary). Field of Dreams won’t shock you, it likely won’t make you think very hard, and any moral message or meaning it has is positive and reassuring… but what’s so wrong with that? The plot keeps moving, refusing to be bogged down in navel-gazing or star-gazing. The story is also too unusual to be marred by any serious degree of predictability, though some events are of course easily guessed, but the mystery of how the various elements would come together kept my attention throughout. Crucially, it doesn’t labour its sentimentality or batter you round the head with morals or meanings. It’s hardly ambiguous, but nor is it over done.

    Field of Dreams may not be astounding filmmaking — it’s not especially complex, radical, thrilling, thought-provoking, intense or revolutionary, nor terribly serious or terribly funny, nor indeed wholly original — but it is nice. And I mean that in a good way.

    4 out of 5

    Field of Dreams is on ITV today, Saturday 27th September 2014, at 2:35pm.