Many movie buffs would argue that Robert Redford’s best years as an actor were from 1969 to 1976, when he was at the height of his movie stardom, with a string of heavyweight films that included “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid,” “Downhill Racer,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Candidate,” “The Way We Were,” “The Sting,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men.”
That’s one hell of a run, but I’d argue the string he’s on now — starting with his one-man 2013 drama “All Is Lost,” and including “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “Truth,” “Pete’s Dragon,” the Netflix films “The Discovery” and “Our Souls at Night,” and his latest and possibly last one, the heist comedy “The Old Man & the Gun” — is just as good.
“The Old Man & the Gun” encourages that retrospective thinking, as it tells the story of career criminal Forrest Tucker, who has flourished in spite of his age because of a wealth of charm and a puckish smile. These are traits Tucker, of course, shares with Redford, whose good looks and easygoing screen persona often mask the considerable brainpower behind those magnetic eyes.
Writer-director David Lowery, who worked with Redford on “Pete’s Dragon,” introduces Tucker in the early 1980s in Texas, doing what he does: robbing a bank. He’s cool, collected, polite, even gentlemanly. He shows the gun in his jacket pocket, takes the money, drives off and switches cars to avoid the inevitable police chase.
This time, he stops to help a woman whose pickup truck has broken down on the side of the road, conveniently having his head under the hood when the police cars speed past. The woman, Jewel (Sissy Spacek), ends up going out for coffee with this handsome stranger, who gives his name as Bob, and they start going out together. First he tells her he’s a salesman, but then he tells her the truth — but she doesn’t believe him.
Meanwhile, a Dallas police detective, John Hunt, played by Lowery regular Casey Affleck, puts himself on the trail of Tucker and his associates, played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, whom the media dub “The Over-the-Hill Gang.” Hunt comes to respect Tucker for his professionalism, his charm and his persistence at robbing banks and escaping from prisons over decades.
Lowery spins a sweet yarn out of Tucker’s exploits, as he romances Jewel while simultaneously playing a cat-and-mouse game with Hunt. We soon learn that Tucker’s motivation isn’t greed but excitement, the chance to live life fully and according to his own rules.
Lowery perfectly deploys the period details, from the tacky 1970s architecture of many of the banks Tucker robs to using the same Hobo typeface seen in Redford’s breakout film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” From soundtrack cuts to the laid-back approach to car chases, Lowery has created a carefree caper comedy out of Redford’s ’70s heyday.
Surrounded by a talented ensemble, Redford shows he’s still got the juice, displaying his trademark charisma and capturing the impish joy Tucker feels at robbing banks and evading the law. If this is Redford’s last movie role — he’s been backtracking a bit from his summer announcement that he’s retiring from acting — he’s leaving at the height of his powers.
‘The Old Man & the Gun’
As a career criminal nearing the end of his long run, Robert Redford gives a valedictory performance in this frisky comedy.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 12.
Rating • PG-13 for brief strong language.
Running time • 93 minutes.