Jun 15, 2022
By Kyle Mullin
Photography by Prashant Gupta/FX
There is no sign of Jeff Bridges’ mellow Lebowski image in the new spy series, The Old Man. Bridges plays Dan Chase, a super-spy in hiding, 30 years after angering a U.S.-backed Afghan warlord with whom he once fought against Russian insurgents. The dense backstory is slowly unveiled in flashbacks and exposition with Chase’s former friend turned rival, FBI higher up Harold Harper, played by John Lithgow, masterfully restraining his famed theatricality in a performance as against type as Bridges’. Harper is ordered to bring Chase in to satisfy the warlord’s renewed grudge in the series premiere. Instead he rings up Chase to warn that operatives are on his trail, in the hopes that his old cohort will not only keep himself hidden but also whatever atrocities they committed in the Middle East.
That phone call is one of the series’ many compellingly acted and written scenes that elevate its spy pulp to a multi-dimensional personal drama that evokes other genres and loftier themes. Prime example: before Bridges and Lithgow nimbly flip through exposition and begin trading genre-appropriate threats over the phone, they begin with tense but clearly heartfelt condolences about the family each lost since last they spoke. It’s the first of several apt metaphors about aging throughout the first four episodes shown to critics.
Among the other detours that enrich The Old Man beyond your standard shoot ‘em up: Harper’s paternal working dynamic with junior agent Angela Adams (Alia Shawkat, of Arrested Development and Search Party), which quickly becomes more complex and fascinating as they hunt Chase down after he rebukes Harper’s offer. Their scenes rank among the best of any family drama. Then there’s Chase’s layered dinner table exchange with Zoe McDonald (Amy Brenneman, Judging Amy and NYPD Blue). Chase falls into a heartstring-tugging tryst with Zoe while on the run from Harper’s dragnet, before dragging her along for “her protection” once he realizes she’ll be used to get to him. To the writers’ credit, Zoe’s canny legal trick to regain leverage (which I won’t spoil here) not only gives the series gripping divorce-drama vibes, but also upends damsel in distress cliches.
All that being said, there’s lots here to satisfy action fans that are above all craving an adrenaline jolt. The Old Man has some of the most gruesome and distinctly shot fight scenes since Taken. Of course, that Liam Neeson actioner is no longer novel, thanks to countless geriatric actors ripping it off for similar career revivals. But Bridges knows better, bringing heart and gruff feebleness to face-offs with younger agents that almost bring him down, only to be subdued by the surprisingly resilient old coot.
All that elevates The Old Man past a mere action-thriller. Instead, it’s a flawed but complex and can’t-miss drama in a year stuffed with them. That’s especially true in its astounding second and third episodes which, like a retired but still talented fighter, get warmed up enough to work off genre stiffness and come out swinging. The fight scenes alone make The Old Man distinctly thrilling. The first few episodes have some muddled plot points and a few confusing scenes, not to mention limply written dialogue in a flashback to a desert standoff between younger Chase and Harper. But those season openers also showcase Bridges’ obvious dedication and preparation and he wrestles with gun and knife wielding agents, at one point using a seatbelt as inventively, and lethally, as Jason Bourne with a pen.
Unlike the notoriously shaky camera work that became fashionable after those Matt Damon movies hit big, director Jon Watts (Spider-Man: No Way Home) shoots The Old Man’s early episodes’ action steadily and with few cuts. The viewer has a full and absorbing view of the well-trained, but over-the-hill Chase struggling to fend off attackers, wincing and bleeding and growling from one unlikely escape to the next. Having a pair of lethally trained (to the point of being far-fetched), but nevertheless endearing, Rottweilers on hand certainly helps. But Chase is undeniably resourceful on his own and, despite a few rusty slip-ups, you’ll keep watching him get out of scrapes keenly.
It’s the tending to his deeper wounds: familial, romantic and professional, however, that make The Old Man not just highly watchable but truly memorable. (www.fxnetworks.com/shows/the-old-man)
Author rating: 7/10
Rate this show
No ratings have been recorded yet.