It’s tempting to pretend that Gene Hackman’s career ended with The Royal Tenenbaums. More than three decades after his breakout performance in Bonnie and Clyde, the actor is at his prickly best as Royal, an absentee father in the last act of his life who’s hoping to reconnect with the family he rendered dysfunctional. A gruff man’s man and a bit of a chaos agent, Royal is an aged, more buffoonish iteration of the hard-edged, isolated characters that Hackman built his star persona on in the 1970s. But where the protagonists of movies like Night Moves and Scarecrow end their journeys adrift and alone, Royal is after simple human connection — something he finds by the end of the film. Writing the part with Hackman in mind, Wes Anderson teed up a fitting, metatextual denouement to the New Hollywood icon’s career. So how is it that he ended his run with Welcome to Mooseport instead?
The short answer is prolificness — a constant throughout most of Hackman’s career. From his TV work in the 1960s all the way through to his last slew of films in the early 2000s, Hackman churned out performances left and right, taking his fair share of paycheck roles along the way. Perpetual motion was his mode of operation, and the man himself seems largely unsentimental about crafting any mythology behind his career. (Asked by GQ in 2011 to sum up his life in a phrase, Hackman replied: “‘He tried.’ I think that’d be fairly accurate.”) It seems obvious, then, that the actor would back out of the game on an arbitrary note, unconcerned with finding the right swan song to resolve the thematic ties across his body of work. With that in mind, his final, non-Tenenbaums string of films — including Heist, Behind Enemy Lines, Runaway Jury, Heartbreakers, and the aforementioned Mooseport — can be seen as a sort of unintentional “farewell tour,” in which he revisits the various types of roles he played again and again throughout his career.
At some point along his rise to stardom, Hackman became known as Hollywood’s Everyman, a reputation that seems to be founded less on the roles he chose and more so on the fact that, by the time he made it big, he already looked like he had spent a decade as a truck driver. More often than not, Hackman played a man in charge, whether that meant a small-town basketball coach, a senator, or — as in David Mamet’s Heist — a master thief. His characters tend to be men of specific talents, but the Heist stop on his farewell tour draws a common thread through many of them by once again positioning him as the reluctant hero. As Joe Moore, a jewel thief dragged into one last job by a fence (Danny DeVito) who’s withholding payments, Hackman slips on the role of “grizzled veteran” like an old glove, trading barbed Mamet speak with DeVito and Delroy Lindo like it’s second nature. Joe’s character arc is one that calls back to Hackman movies like 1985’s Target — in which he plays a retired CIA agent pulled back into the game when his wife goes missing — or even 1974’s The Conversation, in which surveillance expert Harry Caul only jumps into action when he realizes that he might be able to prevent a murder. These movies vary wildly in quality and tone, but it’s Hackman’s ability to sell you on the idea that he’s seen some shit that allows each of the characters to feel lived-in.
Of course, that same capacity — inseparable from his marketability as a movie star — granted Hackman plenty of opportunities to cash in, starting in the ’70s with movies like Poseidon Adventure and Lucky Lady. “I did the poor-boy thing,” he explained to the New York Times in 1989. ”I was very determined to be successful. I had a number of houses and cars and airplanes. It was like the empty barrel that doesn’t have a bottom to it.” Regretful as he may sound, the actor came around on some of his paycheck roles — specifically that of Lex Luthor, which he reprised twice — and earned the reputation of never turning in a bad performance, regardless of the movie around him. As a blanket statement, that warrants some scrutiny, but it holds up when applied to the more paycheck-y supporting roles of Hackman’s farewell tour.
Consider his work in Behind Enemy Lines, in which he’s asked to play a commanding officer who barks orders like “Use your training! Evade and survive!” into a radio at, remarkably, Owen Wilson. Hackman is all steely presence, relying on a bag of tricks we’ve seen a hundred times before, but still elevating the nonsensical goings-on to a level of, well, watchability. (There’s a simple trick to this, I’m sure, but one that he seems to have only passed along to his Crimson Tide co-star, Denzel Washington.) And when given slightly more to chew on than “vaguely dignified admiral,” farewell-tour Hackman could still make you forget his sizable paycheck, throwing on a layer of sleaze for 2004’s Runaway Jury to remind us that he can just as easily go pure villain.
Which brings us back to Mooseport, the vanilla-bland kind of early-2000s comedy that quickly made its way to the bargain bins at Best Buy, or wound up packaged in a double-feature DVD box alongside a Tim Allen movie. As easy to dunk on as it is to watch, Welcome to Mooseport is precisely what you would expect it to be (and even has its defenders!): Once again subverting the Everyman label, Hackman plays a conceited ex-president pitted against Ray Romano’s Joe Six-Pack in a small-town mayoral election. In terms of Hackman’s comedic performances, this is more Birdcage than Get Shorty, mostly asking him to play it straight as a buttoned-up, self-satisfied conservative. It’s the type of role that late-career Hackman could play in his sleep, and that makes you appreciate his zanier turn as a chain-smoking retiree in 2001’s Heartbreakers, an otherwise unwatchable con-man comedy that boasts multiple gags centered around Ray Liotta’s erection. When taken together, the two movies offer a reminder that Hackman — underrated as a comedic asset — knew how to calibrate his prickly characters to just about any wavelength.
Sixteen years into his retirement, it’s safe to say that we won’t be getting another performance out of Gene Hackman. A workmanlike actor up until his final role, the 90-year-old was never possessed by passion projects in the same way as his New Hollywood contemporaries — several of whom dug deep into Netflix’s coffers just last year to mull over their legacies in The Irishman. Gene Hackman, meanwhile, decided one day that he didn’t want to work anymore, and got off the train. Why should he care if that train was in Mooseport?