The Old Man And The Gun 

Robert Redford retires at the top of his game

It's always hard to know when to quit. We as a society put all the emphasis on the skills it takes to be successful and climb the ladder in your chosen field, but understanding when you've reached the point of diminishing returns is equally important. You frequently see it in sports, from Jerry Rice limping through his 20th season to Michael Jordon's stint with the Washington Wizards. Overstaying your welcome happens all the time in the arts, too, as was driven home to me recently when, seized by Halloween spirit, I suffered through Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy. Oy.

The trick is to go out, if not at the top of your game, at least when your chops are still sharp. One guy who was able to do just that was Forrest Tucker. If they gave out Crime Academy Awards, Tucker would surely get a lifetime achievement trophy. Between his 15th birthday and his death in 2004 at age 83, Tucker robbed more than $4 million from banks. Of course, they do give a lifetime achievement award for crime: Life in prison. But that was no deterrent to Tucker, who claimed to have escaped from prison "18 times successfully and 12 times unsuccessfully." San Quinten, Alcatraz, Folsom — name a famous clink and Tucker probably busted out of it. The final time he was arrested at age 79, he was four banks deep into a crime spree as the "Gentleman Bandit," so I think it's safe to say that Tucker "retired" while his game was still tight.

Robert Redford is a national treasure. His list of awards stemming from his film career is so long, it has its own independent Wikipedia page. In the late '70s, Redford was the first chairman of the Sundance Film Festival, named after Redford's character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When Time magazine recently put him on their list of the most powerful people in the world, they called him the father of independent film.

click to enlarge Robert Redford (above) rides one last time as Forrest Tucker in The Old Man & the Gun.
  • Robert Redford (above) rides one last time as Forrest Tucker in The Old Man & the Gun.

Since it was the role of an unrepentant bank robber that propelled Redford to superstardom, it's fitting that the 82-year-old Redford decided to hang up his filmmaking spurs portraying Forrest Tucker. The Old Man & the Gun is based on a 2003 New Yorker article by writer David Grann detailing Tucker's exploits. It's written for the screen and directed by David Lowery, whose breakthrough film Ain't Them Bodies Saints gained international attention at Sundance 2013.

Lowery, who had the unenviable task of directing someone who has both a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar, is at the top of his game. The Old Man & the Gun is about endings, but it is much more playful and hopeful than Lowery's emotionally devastating A Ghost Story. Lowery brings on his regular collaborator Casey Affleck as John Hunt, Tucker's police detective nemesis. Much of Redford's portrayal of Tucker is defined by this relationship. Hunt regards Tucker as a criminal and a threat, but with grudging admiration for his tradecraft. Tucker, on the other hand, thinks of Hunt as a work colleague and something of a chum. There's a sense that some of the robber's more daring jobs are done just to impress the cops.

click to enlarge Tom Waits
  • Tom Waits

The rest of the cast is uniformly incredible. I envision Redford, who has a producer credit, picking up the phone one morning to ask Sissy Spacek if she would like to be his love interest. Who in their right mind is going to say no to that? Lowery gives Spacek more room to maneuver than she's had in years, so she and Redford absolutely crackle together in scene after scene. Rounding out Tucker's Over the Hill Gang are, amazingly enough, Tom Waits and Danny Glover. Lowery gives Waits a meandering monologue about why he hates Christmas, and just lets the camera roll uninterrupted while the gravelly voiced singer casts his spell.

Redford, clearly having a ball, has that old, mischievous twinkle in his eye from The Sting. When he calms a nervous bank teller mid-robbery by saying "You're doing great," you'll wish he would be there to encourage you when your life hits a tough spot. The spirit behind his effortless, inspired performance is best summed up when Tucker says to his lawyer, "I guess when you find something you love, you keep at it."

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