Last month, Robert Redford told Entertainment Weekly that his latest film, The Old Man & the Gun, would be his last. At 81, the Sundance Kid was planning on retiring from acting and hanging up his spurs. After watching his final performance, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting note to have gone out on. It’s also hard to imagine a more ironic one. After all, the film is a charmingly breezy, laid-back caper about a disarmingly polite bank robber in his seventies who can’t and won’t stop doing the one thing he’s good at because he loves it too much to stop. The film is fizzy, lightweight fun with some real moments of genuine heart. And Redford, with his frisky charisma and rascal’s grin that’s melted generations of hearts, owns every scene like he’s taking a valedictory lap on a career that began 60 years ago. If anyone has earned the right to take one, it’s him.
Based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann and adapted and directed by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story), The Old Man & the Gun tells the more-or-less true-life story of Forrest Tucker – a spry senior-citizen who’s never been interested in making a living, he’s always been more interested in just living. period. The real Tucker was arrested (at least for the last time, his rap sheet rivaled a phone book) in 1981 after a string of small-time bank robberies from Texas to Missouri and points in between. He was 76 at the time. In the movie, he never seems to feel guilty about what he’s done, but then again why would he in a country that turns colorful criminals who don’t hurt anyone into folk heroes?
And man, was Tucker colorful. Whether working alone or with a pair of shady-acre accomplices (played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, who has one bar-room story about why he hates Christmas that would make a great Tom Waits song), Tucker’s M.O. never changed. Fueled by a lively, jazzy score reminiscent of one of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, Tucker, dressed in a natty suit and a jaunty fedora, would walk up to the manager of a small-branch bank and say that he’d like to open an account. When asked what kind, he would open his suit jacket, show a pistol, and reply, “This kind” with a smile. The kicker was, Tucker was such a gentleman about it, oozing calmness and good cheer, that the tellers who’d been robbed would almost gush describing him to the police. It’s as if they were as charmed by Tucker as they would have been had they met Robert Redford. Who knows, in a different world, maybe he could have been a movie star too.
The detective who’s assigned to catch Tucker, John Hunt (Casey Affleck) ends up being more than a little sympathetic to Tucker as well, kind of like Tommy Lee Jones’s bloodhound U.S. Marshal was in The Fugitive. He’s certainly got Jones’ collection of sad-eyed, hangdog frowns down pat. Hunt dubs Tucker and his band of felons “The Over-the-Hill Gang.” And while the handful of close calls and narrow misses between Redford’s cat and Affleck’s mouse strain credulity almost to the breaking point, Lowery has spun such a fun, intoxicating yarn, it’s hard to kick up too much of a stir. Another complication arises when Tucker meets a divorced woman named Jewel (a note-perfect Sissy Spacek) who he gives a lift after her pick-up truck breaks down on the side of the road during one of his getaways. He flirts with telling her what he does, but she doesn’t believe that this old-timer in a suit could be what he claims to be. Maybe she just doesn’t want to believe. Their romance almost loads this modest film with more plot threads than it can handle. Almost.
Even if The Old Man & the Gun weren’t Redford’s final bow, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s his show from start to satisfying finish. He hasn’t been this mellow and loose in a long time. In the end, Tucker’s luck runs out, of course. As much as he’d like to keep going, the end must come eventually. And so it is with Redford, who has left movie lovers with one last gift that will put a smile on their faces. B+