A career criminal who robbed banks long after other thieves were out of the game — his last arrest came just short of his 79th birthday — Forrest Tucker had one thing going for him: movie star charm.
"You got to hand it to the guy," a juror who voted to convict Tucker told journalist David Grann about the desperado, who died in 2004. "He's got style."
So its completely fitting that "The Old Man & the Gun," written and directed by David Lowery based on Grann's New Yorker profile, succeeds wonderfully well in part because of the effortless movie star charisma of its old school stars, Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek.
Redford, 82, has said that this film is likely his last, and he has been well served by filmmaker Lowery, whose eclectic body of work includes the modern haunting tale "A Ghost Story" and the underappreciated family film "Pete's Dragon."
For though its story of a bandit old enough to know better may sound like a conventional "Over the Hill Gang" kind of endeavor, in the writer-director's hands, it's a puckish film with a wistful quality, a gently comic end-of-the-line adventure about doing what you love, the passage of time and the things that might have been.
A filmmaker with a touch that manages to be both relaxed and in control, Lowery and gifted costars Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter and Tom Waits have made a film that unfolds serendipitously, never quite doing what you expect when you expect it.
And "Old Man" boasts any number of fun touches that reveal themselves at unforeseen moments, such as a diner sign that says "A Lunch Special That Is a Steal," or a glimpse of three kids whitewashing a fence that inevitably recalls those earlier reprobates Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The director even had cinematographer Joe Anderson shoot in Super 16mm to enhance the old-timey look.
The story — which, as promised by the advertising, is "Mostly True" — starts with a man walking out of a small bank in Texas holding a briefcase. It's old and battered-looking and, as a closeup of a weathered face emphasizes, so is Forrest Tucker (Redford), the man holding it.
With an earpiece keeping him up to speed on police radio, Forrest has a fine and satisfied look on his face. As "The Old Man & the Gun" enjoys emphasizing, this is a man who has found his calling, someone who is so passionate about what he does, he can't stop doing it even when he starts to feel he should.
Unhurriedly fleeing from the police pursuit, Forrest stops to help Jewel (Spacek), a woman whose car has broken down. Not out of gallantry, not because he knows anything about cars, which he doesn't, but to hide in plain sight as a parade of cruisers speeds past.
A six-time Oscar nominee (she won for "Coal Miner's Daughter"), Spacek has mostly acted on TV in recent years, and it's a pleasure to have her back on the big screen in a role that takes advantage of her gifts and her ability to project a kind of country western majesty.
A bit taken with each other, Forrest and Jewel repair to a diner for coffee. She tells him she's a widow who lives on a horse farm; he mostly pretends he has a job in sales.
There is a moment, however, when Forrest levels with her, describing in detail how he cases and robs banks, but then he says he's joking, and she mostly believes him.
Next stop is Dallas, the home of John Hunt (Affleck), a happily married family man (Sumpter, who played Michelle Obama in "Southside With You," is expert as his wife) who is having doubts about his chosen career as a police detective.
But fate puts Hunt and his young son in the very bank that Forrest and his partners in crime (engagingly played by Glover and Waits) decide to successfully hit.
Though the resulting media coverage about "pistol packin' grandpas" and "getting the AARP on the case" emphasizes the robbery's amusing aspects, the humiliation Hunt feels lights a fire under him. And he determines to catch the perpetrator.
Yet one of the unexpected notions that "Old Man" explores is that the more Hunt investigates, the more he becomes attached to the man he's seeking. As his wife shrewdly notes, "If you caught him, you wouldn't get to chase him anymore."
While Hunt is tracking Forrest down, the older man spends increasing amounts of time with Jewel, an activity he enjoys almost, but not quite, as much as robbing banks.
In his later years, Grann discovered, Forrest, coincidentally enough, "began to pour all his energy into what he saw as the culmination of his life as an outlaw: a Hollywood movie."
Though Forrest fancied Clint Eastwood as himself, the outlaw would surely be as delighted as everyone else with what Lowery and company have pulled off here.
"When I die, no one will remember me," he told Grann. As it turns out, he didn't have to worry.