It’s quite fitting that what Robert Redford has been billing as his farewell to acting comes in the amiable crime comedy “The Old Man & the Gun.” It feels both timeless and old-fashioned, genial and soft, safe and intensely enjoyable.
Adapted from David Grann’s delightful, novella-style 2003 New Yorker article, it’s the somewhat-true story of Forrest Tucker, a gentleman bank robber and prison escape artist who enjoyed his calling long past a sensible retirement age. The story is set in the early ’80s during one of Tucker’s last unarmed, sweet-talking crime sprees across the Southwest.
What keeps Forrest going is that he’s doing what he loves, which is what the movie is all about. He can’t let go because his sneaky little make-believe dramas feed his ego. No one is hurt in any of his robberies. The staff at the banks he robs tell police afterward that the most important thing they recall about the magnetic Forrest is that he’s remarkably polite.
It’s a view shared by Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widow he meets while on a low-key getaway car chase and begins courting. He even develops an unlikely fan in John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a Texas detective who starts chasing Forrest around the country after his small-time heists fail to interest the FBI. Jewel and John both find Forrest admirable because who wouldn’t?
Writer/director David Lowrey, who directed Redford in the 2016 Disney fantasy “Pete’s Dragon,” knows how to use his star’s charm. Filming in period-appropriate small-town locations, Lowrey frames Redford in a story that has no violence but never feels passive. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep the story from being oppressively schematic.
Spacek and Redford have a wonderful lightly romantic relationship here. There’s a fine buzz between them when, in an early coffee shop date, Forrest tells Jewel he’s a bank robber, and she laughs him off. He keeps to the story, both of them smiling as he talks her through the procedure. He explains that to talk to the teller, “You say, ‘I wouldn’t want you to go and get hurt, ’cause I like you, I like you a lot. So don’t go breaking my heart now, OK?’ ”
She’s still not convinced, but such is the nature of movie-watching that you want him to commit more crimes with his sidekicks (Danny Glover and Tom Waits), whom the media dub “The Over the Hill Gang.”
Redford, 82 and sharp as a samurai sword, plays Forrest as a sly scalawag. He’s no smash-and-grab hooligan, but a calm pro who executes his beloved con acts with craftsmanship, intelligence and integrity. It’s hard to keep Redford entirely outside of his performance. Both the bank robber and the actor embrace a thoughtful step-by-step approach to their professions. Every cashier or bank manager gets a performance from Forrest. It’s easy does it, nothing too forced, with no more camouflage than an occasional mustache. He’s a robber who can’t be resisted because he underplays his part so meticulously.
Further blurring the lines between the performer and the character, the film traces the path of Forrest’s career through snippets of vintage footage and photos drawn from Redford’s early days. As you look at those doctored images of the young matinee idol, the rising star and the legend, all edited to look like old mugshots, memories and family pictures, you can’t help but recognize chapters of Redford’s life story. His eyes still shine the exact same way.
Lowrey focuses the camera on unexpected, random acts of moviemaking beauty along the way. There’s a happy moment when our gaze leaves Forrest’s big 1970s sedan straining to outrun the cops and follows a group of kids wandering down the street to whitewash a fence like characters in “Tom Sawyer.” When attention snaps back to the not-quite-roaring chase, it’s like we’ve witnessed a sneaky magic trick.
None of this would work without the color and warmth of Redford and Spacek. Their timing is ideal for this sort of short-story comedy, and when they reach for moments that are caring, anxious or worrisome, it’s well within their grasp. I hope Redford changes his mind and this is not his final moment in the limelight, but if it is, what a lovely swan song, what a gorgeous swan.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186
The Old Man & the Gun
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13, brief strong language.
Theaters: Edina, Rosedale.