‘The Old Man & The Gun’ – the sun goes down in style for the Sundance Kid

His role as a charming stick-up man is likely to be Robert Redford's last before retirement – and Graeme Virtue reckons it's a wonderful way to bow out

In 2013, Robert Redford was the only credited actor in All Is Lost, the tale of a crinkly yachtsman thrust into a life-or-death struggle in dangerous waters. Alone, incommunicado and with his scuttled sailboat drifting into a violent storm, Redford was required to communicate stoicism, thoughtfulness and, as the situation worsened, the poignant sense of a stubborn septuagenarian weighing up his life choices in the face of oblivion. It was a one-man show gripping enough to stand alongside Redford’s most iconic roles, and felt like the perfect career-capper for a Hollywood icon. He should have won an Oscar (bizarrely, he wasn’t even nominated).

All Is Lost remains an acting masterclass but The Old Man & The Gun – likely to be the Sundance Kid’s true last hurrah after he recently confirmed his screen retirement – is a timely reminder that Redford is also one of our greatest movie stars, and movie stars are often at their most alluring interacting with other people and not just anxiously contemplating a sextant. Based broadly on the life of incorrigible US stick-up man Forrest Tucker (“This story is, also, mostly true,” claims an equivocal title card) it puts Redford in a dapper blue three-piece suit and snappy brown fedora and then simply watches him charm everyone who comes into his orbit, up to and including the audience.

As thieves go, Tucker is not quite as altruistic as Robin Hood but remains a long way from the brutality of John Dillinger, effortlessly smooth-talking blustery bank managers and nervy tellers into handing over cases stuffed with cash in broad daylight. Though technically an armed robber, his real weapon is charisma. After a chance roadside encounter with Jewel, a widowed rancher, he trains his twinkly wiles on her over coffee at a diner and Sissy Spacek does a terrific job of making her character appear both wise to Tucker’s nimble patter but permitting herself to be intrigued by him anyway. Their waltz of courtship gives the movie its heart, and also allows former cowboy Redford a brief return to the range, leaning creakily on Jewel’s frontier fenceposts.

In a dapper blue three-piece suit and snappy brown fedora he charms everyone who comes into his orbit, up to and including the audience

Tucker and his sometime accomplices Danny Glover and Tom Waits – Tom Waits! – have a policy of sticking to relatively low-key scores but eventually a grouchy cop with a greasy moustache (played woozily by Casey Affleck) makes it his personal mission to track down the so-called Over-the-Hill Gang. As the net closes in on Tucker’s industrious crime spree, it becomes a more traditional game of outlaw/lawman cat-and-mouse, even if some of the more intriguing revelations about Tucker’s shady history are withheld until late in the game. By that time, Redford, who was 81 when the movie was shot, has likely won you over, bulky hearing aid or not.

While the action mostly takes place in 1981, director David Lowery – who previously worked with Redford on the charming live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon – seems more interested in evoking the gauziness of 1970s US television, giving The Old Man & The Gun the lived-in Americana textures of a giant-size episode of The Rockford Files. The result is a lovingly crafted swansong infused with a warmth that thankfully never descends into schmaltz. There are already rumours that Redford might find himself in the frame for the Best Actor Oscar that has always eluded him. But even if he can’t pull off that final heist, The Old Man &  The Gun feels like an artful monument to a legendary career.

The Old Man And The Gun is in cinemas from December 7