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The Old Man & the Gun Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

The Old Man & the Gun poster

In 2003, David Grann's lovably bizarre true-crime account "The Old Man and the Gun" appeared in The New Yorker, telling the unlikely story of Forrest Tucker, a natty serial bank robber with multiple prison escape attempts on his resume. Tucker ended up dying behind bars the year after the story brought him national renown.

Such a man was made for the movies, destined specifically to attract the attention of a star of a certain age. Now 82, Robert Redford says "The Old Man and the Gun" will be his final screen appearance. If so it's a pretty fetching one, in a determinedly low-key outing written and directed by David Lowery, who has yet to make an uninteresting picture.

This one co-stars Casey Affleck as the Dallas police detective on Tucker's tail. Danny Glover and Tom Waits fill out fanciful versions of the real men who made up the so-called Over the Hill Gang along with Tucker. Some of the details in the film are legit, such as Tucker's use of a conspicuous hearing aid. It made him look vulnerable and frail; the device, however, was tuned to the nearest police scanner.

Now let's talk about Sissy Spacek. There's a moment when her character, Jewel (who bears little factual relation to the Jewel in the real Tucker's life, one of his wives), has just been kissed by her courtly new paramour. Alone, at night, approximately 100 different emotions race across this great actress's face, with delight and doubt leading the way. It's a lovely nonverbal moment, foreshadowing what's to come while bringing you suddenly close to what this woman is feeling.

I hope Spacek gets a role as spacious and accommodating as Redford's someday.

By contrast, Spacek's co-star delivers what he has been best at: a single, careful look, or mood, or understated note at a time. Redford is not a chord man. I wouldn't call the film itself complex, but it's sweet-natured. Set in 1981 and shot by cinematographer Joe Anderson on Super 16 mm film, it has the grainy, soft-edged look and texture of a movie made around that time, or a few years earlier. It's a gentle throwback, with a stunning lack of violence or rough language or salacious anything to trouble the waters.

Lowery's earlier films include "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" and "A Ghost Story" with Affleck, and "Pete's Dragon" with Redford in a supporting role. "The Old Man and the Gun" retells Tucker's story by way of a compressed timeline and plenty of inventions, most of which feel about right. (However, Tucker really did bust out of prison all those times, and in 1979 he really did escape, temporarily, from San Quentin, in a homemade rowboat.) This is a fact-based yarn so relaxed in the telling that it's practically lying down. Everyone on screen has a pleasant time with their cohorts. Tika Sumpter plays Affleck's wife, and while it's too bad Lowery didn't make more of her role beyond "beguiling and supportive," the story never strays too far from its star.

Lowery taps our memories of Redford's entire career. Today the actor's face is a wonder of deep creases, though his haircut is basically the same one he had around the time of "Three Days of the Condor." His gait may be stiffer, but it's still brisk and purposeful. No fuss. Same goes for his acting.

"Whaddya do?" Spacek asks him early on, wondering what line of work her new friend is in. "That's a secret," Redford replies, with a quick smile that says he'll be keeping it that way for a while. The movie may not be a big deal, but it's a shrewd small one, worth seeing for Waits' larcenous scene-stealing by way of a Christmas-related monologue so tasty, it's no surprise to learn Lowery got it from a story Waits suggested he might throw into the film somewhere. This may be Redford's farewell, but the film's gracious enough to split the loot with his cohorts.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language).

Running time: 1:33.

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