‘The Old Man & The Gun’: A Throwback To When Movies Were Good

Amazingly, The Sundance Kid Isn’t Shooting Blanks

You old coot ! The only thing more adorable than a dashing golden-ager is one with a rap sheet. And boy, does bank robber Forrest Tucker (rascally Robert Redford), have one, all the way back to when he was a teenager. But at the age when most people collect pensions, he just can’t quit being a crook. Why should he, when he’s so dang good at it?

Gee-whiz charming like a Cherry Coke from a soda jerk, David Lowery’s romantic outlaw elegy arrives like a handsome relic from a long-lost time. And I mean that literally: In tone and style, from the costumes and production design to the cinematography and editing, The Old Man & the Gun is an ersatz time capsule of New Hollywood filmmaking—right down to the groovy curves of its opening-credits font and the faux-retro recasting of Fox Searchlight’s logo (a company founded in 1994, but whatever). It’s like an undiscovered classic Sydney Pollack might have knocked out sometime between Jeremiah Johnson and Tootsie.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: David Lowery
Written by: David Lowery
Starring: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Sissy Spacek
Running time: 93 min.

That Me-Decade temporal fabrication rings willfully false in an otherwise “mostly true” story. According to the 2003 New Yorker article by staff writer and bestselling author David Grann, on which the movie is based, the real-life Tucker was actually born in 1920. But Lowery transposes the events two decades earlier so that Redford’s geezer antics are set in 1981. This returns the ’70s heartthrob back (more or less) to the time of his career heyday just at the moment that the 82-year-old is ending it (Redford claims that Old Man is his acting adieu). It’s apt and it’s cute. And it works, especially since Lowery brings in a contemporary ringer like Sissy Spacek as Redford’s sober-minded, lived-a-life love interest who’s skeptical of slick men but still can’t help herself around them.

Peel away the film’s Throwback Thursday skin, though, and there’s a sweet, sad, sparkling tale of sweaty desperation, a true homage to the anti-heroes that mushroomed at the multiplexes once upon a time when the movies reflected America’s aching, restless—and fundamentally self-destructive—outlaw urges.

“My gun still works.”

Like so many of his iconic roles, from the Sundance Kid to the Electric Horseman, Redford’s geriatric bandit is a courtly gentleman with a smooth charm honed over a lifetime of rough work. He’s the type who wears a royal-blue three-piece suit and a fedora when he pulls off a job. He wears what looks like an age-appropriate hearing aid, though it’s actually a police scanner that keeps him one step ahead of the cops. As for that titular pistol: He only just flashes it at the tellers. Who needs to pull the trigger? Actual violence is purely amateur-hour stuff. The part fits him like a glove, and it’s thrilling to see Redford waltz away with every scene. He incidentally heads up a posse called the “Over-the-Hill Gang” that also includes Danny Glover and Tom Waits,  the hippest back-up around.

The old pros have honed their petty thievery into a well-oiled machine. Over a two-year span, they pull off 93 robberies across five Southwestern states. Slow-burn detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck with a pornstache) is determined to bring Tucker and his men to justice, but Tucker is a bona-fide escape artist, having slipped out of various incarcerations more than a dozen different times. There’s even a quick, clever repurposed snippet, during a flashback montage of Tucker’s prison-break acumen, of a baby-faced Redford borrowed from 1966’s The Chase. Redford’s vast cinematic history provides a nice way to sidestep any uncanny-valley Benjamin Button CGI de-aging.

In his original article, Grann ruminates on the enduring appeal of the “‘good bad man,” and Lowery baits us with it, too. “I’m not talking about making a living,” one character paraphrases Tucker. “I’m just talking about living.” Amen to that, brother. But also incredibly sad. Tucker is an adrenaline junkie, and his track marks are showing. There’s a reason that Butch and Sundance feel romantic: because they died young. What happens if you hang around too long? Lowery did a beautiful job exploring that notion in the stunning 2017 existentialist rumination A Ghost Story. And, in way, the director does that here, too. Is there really such a thing as going out in style? Maybe not for Tucker. But Redford couldn’t hope for a better curtain call.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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