‘The Old Man’: Jeff Bridges Is an Aging Spy on the Run in Slow-Burning FX Thriller
One of the most common anti-ageist tools in entertainment is to take leading men at or past middle age and show they can snap a neck or blow up a car very well. Audiences seem to respond enthusiastically to the technique, maybe because it defies our stereotypes about aging. FX’s “The Old Man” continues the trend with a title that is almost purposefully ironic. It’s also not a complete recycle of the formula. Jeff Bridges is the veteran star of the show and it’s a great vehicle to showcase his abilities. For decades he’s been one of those actors capable of embodying wisdom or warmth. Down-to-earth is what his technique has been all about. This series is rather brilliant in how it uses those qualities to fuel a thriller about an assassin on the run.
Bridges plays a man named Dan Chase, although this could be a false identity. He lives alone in a home in one of those picturesque, forest-strewn corners of America where people fantasize of escaping to. Dan’s only communication seems to be with his daughter, who is haunted by what sounds like a rough childhood marked by secrecy. Soon enough, a man breaks into Dan’s house at night, armed with a silencer. After Dan kills him and the cops arrive, he packs and flees, dialing the number of what sounds like a safe house. It is then that we meet CIA official Harold Harper (John Lithgow), who is alerted to Dan’s deadly reappearance and is tasked with capturing him. Harper tries to alert Dan and offer him a chance to flee forever, but the old spook refuses and a deadly hunt ensues. Flashbacks hint at the two men’s past history involving Middle East operations targeting Russia. It’s a past involving Dan’s deceased wife, Abbey (Hiam Abbass) and a warlord, with details that could bring down Harper.
Jeff Bridges has undergone many transformations in his career, from fallen country singer in “Crazy Heart” to Hollywood slacker in “The Big Lebowski.” Initially “The Old Man” suggests he’s now joining the ranks of actors like Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington and Bob Odenkirk, who have found renewed fan bases by becoming action leads. A key difference is that those actors tend to play such roles in feature films that work like momentary entertainments. This is a patient, atmospheric thriller that’s more about psychological standoffs than action. “Spider Man: No Way Home” director Jon Watts films the first two episodes with a slow burner pace driven by Dan and Harper sparring over the phone as Dan tries to make his escape. The language is cryptic but we get a clearer picture in flashbacks where a young Dan (Bill Heck) and Harold (Christopher Redman) meet in a country that could be Afghanistan. Their disagreements seem to have begun when Dan wanted more weapons to help a local warlord fight against the Russians, or Soviets if this is the ‘80s.
There are some intense moments of violence in the early episodes, including a riveting car crash where Bridges shows off his action lead capabilities when trading blows with a CIA henchman. He also has two dog companions that won’t let assassins get in their way. This material takes a secondary place to the more human elements of the writing, like Dan appearing to have deteriorating memory, which worries his daughter over the phone. Another flashback reveals how Abbey also succumbed to an illness that left Dan a widower. Another flashback, with a young Dan professing to Abbey (played as younger by Leem Lubany), who is Middle Eastern, that he wants them to run off together and change identities, could have been corny, yet has a moving depth. Bridges plays a man haunted by time and his role in covert histories, who hints that he has done horrible things we might learn about later. John Lithgow also goes against the typical, steely aged bureaucrat role personified by actors like Jon Voight in films such as “Enemy of the State.” His introduction shows Harper playing with a young grandson whose parents have died, before going to weep secretly in his bedroom.
“The Old Man” almost brings an arthouse sensibility to a particular thriller genre that has become all so common ever since Liam Neeson made “Taken.” Bridges takes the concept to the level of more classic espionage thrillers, where the characters matter more than the familiar, geopolitical plot points. He’s done action films before, but not like this, where he’s both intimidating and vulnerable. His aged operative is not a superman, but just a man, worn out and now on the run again. We don’t know the entire backstory as of yet, but Bridges is so good that we don’t stop to ask too many questions. His evocation of carrying a weighty conscience is enough. There is plenty of tension, but the real pleasure here is watching an old pro allowed to just be in front of the camera and remind us how it’s done.
“The Old Man” season one premieres June 16 and airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.