My Only Mistake Was Getting Old…

redford2.0The two-sentence reviewThe Old Man & the Gun proves a perfect match for screen legend Robert Redford, one last bona fide star turn in the twilight of his career. While sleek and charming, the remaining parts of the movie can’t combine to reach his magnetic level, but don’t hold that against it.

In full

Ilie Nastase in a quiet voice turns to me and says: ‘He has what we all want’. And I say, ‘What?’ He said, ‘One more time’.” — Mike Lupica, reflecting on Jimmy Connors at the ’91 US Open

Whenever you hear a critic or fan lament, “Hollywood doesn’t make ’em like they used to”, movies like The Old Man & the Gun are what they mean. Under the skillful direction of David Lowery, who would have been quite comfortable in the auteur-is-king era of the late-’60s and ’70s that produced Robert Redford, comes the story of Forrest Tucker, a bank robber who thinks himself a debonair “gentleman thief” and is far more interested in the thrill of the chase than in enjoying any of his ill-gotten gains. He may be on the wrong side of the law but it feels perfectly right to root him on, such is the charm that Redford puts into what (he says) is his final on-screen performance. Much like Clint Eastwood did in awakening the spirit of Dirty Harry for Gran Torino a decade ago, you don’t have to squint very hard to see this character as a late-in-life reimagining of iconic roles from Redford’s youth, ones who stepped just off the path of the straight and narrow, like The Sundance Kid or The Sting‘s Johnny Hooker.

Similar to the adventures of Butch and Sundance, this period crime caper is rooted in facts, improbable though they might seem, all the way down to nearly identical title cards assuring us of such. In 1969 it was “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true”; fifty years later a slightly more honest “This story is mostly true” tableau serves the same function. Profiled by David Grann for a 2003 New Yorker article, the real Forrest Tucker was indeed a full-time criminal who had “been in prison all my life, except for the times I’ve broken out.” He was so adept both in his chosen career and in finding ways to free himself from captivity, even if just for brief moments, that he managed to spend time on Alcatraz when it was still locking up America’s Most Wanted. By his own estimates, Tucker had a total of 30 escape attempts (18 successful, 12 unsuccessful), though any comparisons to him and Steve McQueen’s Cooler King in The Great Escape have to stop there. The movie chooses to root its story during one particularly fruitful period of his outlaw life – after a daring breakout from San Quentin in 1979, approaching 60 years old and in his fifth decade on the lam, he and some fellow retirement-eligible cons (represented by Danny Glover and Tom Waits in the movie’s version of events) set off on a string of bank heists and store hold-ups throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, taunting the cops for their inability to catch them and earning a media nickname: The Over-The-Hill Gang.

“There is an art to robbing a bank if you do it right,” the real Tucker mused to Grann during interviews for the New Yorker piece. Whether the realization comes when reading that full article (which is excellent, make the time for it) or watching Redford glide across the screen even at age 82, it hits you: this Forrest Tucker gentleman, in reality, spent his life acting out the fantasy that he was a character in a Hollywood picture, maybe even one starring Redford at his sandy blonde hair & blue eyes peak. The only thing missing was an actual movie version of his life, taking a few of the facts and spinning a legendary new yarn out, like Bonnie & Clyde or Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid had done; Grann’s reporting also related that as one prison stretch wound down in early 1990s, Tucker put all his energy into luring Hollywood studios, “to see his story enshrined in the American imagination”. To that end, maybe it was destiny that it only come to pass now, because only now could Redford himself complete the circle by committing it to film.

His performance as Tucker calls back all the best parts of a six-decade Hollywood resume, the easy charm and suave mannerisms he brought to roles that mask criminal (but not necessarily sinister) intentions. It fits the imagined screen picture we have of Redford so perfectly, the Tom Sawyer-ish impulse to do something that is ‘just a little bit’ wrong mostly because you want to see if you can get away it. He commands every scene, the weary face still flashing the movie star charisma. Redford’s Tucker draws the audience straight to his corner, and you can’t help but admire his attitude and even grow a little envious. It’s like he tells us, “Look, I get what I’m doing is illegal. But I’d be lost if I tried anything else. How can anybody be happy if they’re not doing what they’re good at?”

If only the other elements of the movie could click on the same level of the leading man, we might have to consider this final film in Redford’s career as one of his absolute best. It’s not that any of it is bad, but it is almost, uniformly, nothing beyond ordinary. It’s like Tucker was the only one allowed to be interesting, and the rest of the movie is far too hit and miss with the supporting cast around him. To be fair, they aren’t given much to do other than be human add-ons to the period details of the sets, which of course pull out all the stops restoring the “glory” of 1980 Texas, with its collision of the old west landscapes and new money urban sprawl. It does make for a pretty pairing with the grainy, desaturated film look Lowery drapes it all in, evoking the moody, lights-and-shadows palette of works that made the younger Redford so famous. Still, it seems like everybody’s chief task here was providing scenery for Redford to grace with his presence, if only so we can all marvel one last time at how it used to be done.

Every cops & robbers film requires somebody to take on the thankless role of John Q. Law, and here that’s Casey Affleck in a supporting turn that appears to have built its character exclusively from a single sentence in Grann’s original article. Describing John Hunt, an Austin police sergeant (promoted to detective & based in Dallas for movie purposes), Grann wrote that in 1980 he was “a chain-smoker with a drooping mustache and a slight paunch”. Affleck appears to have taken that to be all that he, or anybody else, should really know, and seems to have invested a lot of time getting his hair just right to go with a perfectly bushy mustache. If the goal was to come across as the depressed cousin of Magnum, P.I. who resents the fact he’s not living in Hawaii, job well done. That’s about it though, as he spends most of his time mumbling lines and showing up just after the crooks have made off like bandits. There are a couple moments where he has to try and reconcile his growing obsession with the chase against family obligations to his wife and kids, but even then it’s never clear why he wants to catch Tucker and pals so badly. Maybe it’s best for that to be left unstated. In truth, Hunt was simply one of dozens of law enforcement officers confounded by the Over-The-Hill Gang during their spree, and at least Affleck doesn’t try to turn him into a Texas version of Inspector Javert. The two adversaries share only one scene and it’s actually one of the best in the film, skillfully building tension and playing with the audience’s expectations, as we know more than either character does about the circumstances they’ve wandered into.

The others who find themselves in Tucker’s orbit get a little more room to work overall, in particular Sissy Spacek as Jewel, who is very loosely inspired by the real Forrest Tucker’s third wife. Tucker seems to let her in on some of his secrets, but she dismisses it as an old man bragging, in the same way you might roll your eyes when somebody muses about “how great I was way back when”. It’s a sweet screen romance, one which takes its time going anywhere, but very endearing in how it brings together two people in the winter of life still finding joy in one another’s company. Glover & Waits round out Tucker’s crime trio and in their limited scenes riff off a couple good zingers (Waits especially), but ultimately this isn’t a movie built on the buddy chemistry among the old robbers, similarities to the hijinks of Going In Style notwithstanding. It’s Tucker, and really him only, who is the guy we’re all rooting for, even in a movie that never is all that coy about the fact he’s going to get caught eventually.

All together, The Old Man & the Gun is great capper for Redford, and if it has a mark to be held against it, it’s simplicity. That doesn’t make it boring, just lacking the full roster of rich characters that populate classics like The Sting, which it is so intentional in calling to mind. In another era of Hollywood, this would have been a major studio release with all the attendant press coverage and awards hype like that 1973 Best Picture winner, but if in 2018 we have to wave farewell to Robert Redford on a low-key independent film, one suspects The Sundance Kid himself probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

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