‘The Old Man and the Gun’

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Forrest Tucker is a very bad man. He stole a bicycle at age 13, and first entered juvenile detention at 15. He’s spent his entire life in and out of prisons, and has successfully escaped 18 times. Now, at age 70, he’s just broken out of San Quentin, but he’s restless. He can’t simply call it quits. Tucker embarks on a string of bank robberies across the Midwest. Yes, Forrest Tucker is, for wont of a better word, a bad guy.

The dichotomy is that he also happens to be a very nice man. So nice, in fact, that bank tellers and managers are almost too eager to help him. The encouraging delinquent sooths one teary-eyed teller by reassuring her that she’s doing a good job. During the post-heist investigations, one bank manager admits he never actually saw Tucker’s gun – but he “knew he had one.” Tucker is a walking testament to the adage that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. When Forrest Tucker robs a bank, the whole process somehow goes down easy.

Now, who better than the great Robert Redford to pull off the disunion of the “nice” bad guy? Redford has been successfully winking at the camera for years. Yes, Butch and Sundance were bad guys too – in sort of a non-threatening way. And “The Sting?” Same deal – we rooted for the bad guys.

So his role as likeable cad Forrest Tucker in David Lowery’s new film “The Old Man and the Gun” is certainly no stretch. Nor should it be. Redford has claimed this is his last starring role, and it is a non-taxing one for his legion of fans. Redford’s Tucker goes down easy – like a hot toddy after a hard day of work. Redford gives us exactly what we want. He even flashes that classic old-cinema smile of his that engaged his fans two generations ago. In fact, he’s better in “The Old Man and the Gun” than he’s been in quite a few years. In a way, it’s too bad this is his swan song. But better to go out with a bang than with a fizzle.

Speaking of which, for a film in which “gun” is part of the title, there is absolutely no gunfire in this picture. “The Old Man and the Gun” is not so much a movie about crime as it is a movie about a career – that of Redford’s. Assisting him in this endeavor are the great Sissy Spacek as his latter-day love interest. He meets her immediately following one of his robberies. Her car has sputtered to a stop alongside the road, and he stops to look under the hood. As he patiently admits he knows nothing about cars, the cops speed by – in hot pursuit of a bank robber, not a gentleman helping a woman with her car.

The conversations between Redford and Spacek are so warm-hearted and genuine, I could have watched the two of them talk for 90 minutes rather than have their discussion interrupted by the series of bank heists. That’s how strong their chemistry is – gentle and relaxing, yet these are obviously old pros at the acting game. Also strong are Tucker’s occasional cohorts Teddy and Waller, played by Danny Glover and musician Tom Waits.

Casey Affleck is Detective John Hunt – the guy who first determines that there is a series of robberies taking place at all. He ties together the similarities and the distances between the banks – and then trails Tucker, almost hoping not to catch him, lest the cat-and-mouse chase draw to a close. One of his kids even iterates that Dad might be sad if he catches Tucker because he’s having so much fun chasing him.

And in an obvious tip-of-the-hat to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the press dubs Tucker and his boys the “Over the Hill Gang.” Yes, even though this is a story about bad guys, there’s nothing threatening about “The Old Man and the Gun.”

If I could lodge one criticism at this film it would be that it is so lightweight as to be inconsequential. But then, when has a Redford film been “consequential?” It’s not like any of his pictures has been particularly “heavy.” He’s not the guy you cast in “A Clockwork Orange.” He’s the guy you put in love stories, westerns, and caper comedies. And Lowery gets Redford to strike all the right notes here.

But make no mistake, “The Old Man and the Gun” is not some throwaway homage to an icon whose best days are decades behind him. No, there are scenes which will stay with you long after the closing credits. In fact, not only does this film take place in 1981, but it feels like it was made in 1981. The absence of foul language, the absence of smoking as a cinematic prop, and Joe Anderson’s grainy cinematography give “The Old Man and the Gun” a retro-feel which can only be described as pleasant and welcoming. This will almost certainly not make my Top Ten List for 2018, yet I could watch it over and over again and never become bored. It’s exactly the hot toddy the doctor prescribed.

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