The Old Man, a serviceable new action series/political intrigue drama based on the 2017 novel by Thomas Perry, gets to the point in the title. Jeff Bridges plays the old man, who is somewhere between 60 and 70 years old, lives alone with his two large dogs, appears to be in his sunset days – and can outwit a team of FBI agents and out-tussle men half his age.
The seven-part limited series, developed by Jonathan E Steinberg and Robert Levine, is a better-than-it-should-be braid of male fantasies: hyper-competency in late age, the ability to protect loved ones from forces larger than they understand, having superior combat skills applied justly, proving people wrong and being ultimately right. I mostly enjoyed the four episodes made available for review, despite some prolonged, knuckle-smashing fight scenes that were well-simulated but draining. Much of the show’s success comes down to Bridges, who anchors a rickety character visibly battered by the past yet able to shapeshift in the present.
Many of the early scenes, when Bridges’s Dan Chase is still alone and unbothered, are long, nearly wordless takes – the bucolic sound design emphasizes the ticking clock, wind chimes, his labored breathing – that rely on Bridges’s steady naturalism. Dialogue arrives in the form of concerned phone calls from his daughter, whose location and appearance are kept a mystery, and spectral dreams of his late wife, Abbey (Succession’s Hiam Abbass, again criminally underused), who died years earlier of a degenerative illness.
Things take a turn about a quarter of the way into the first episode (like many overlong series these days, three of the four preview episodes stretched over an hour) when an intruder dislodges his sense of anonymity. Chase goes on the run from an FBI team, headed by a fellow stubborn old man, Harold Harper (John Lithgow) and nosy CIA liaison Raymond Waters (EJ Bonilla). The latter starts tugging at old threads of a dark history that feels at once complicated and shallow. (To quote Harper on several occasions, there are “things buried in the ground for 30 years” that he doesn’t want to see the light of day.) Among them: Chase’s past as an ex-CIA agent during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (regrettably portrayed here, as it often is, as an enigma from which foreigners emerge as heroes, or vigilantes, or both), Harper’s association with Chase, and both of their connections to a vindictive Afghan warlord. In the process of his long run from whatever revenge people want to exact on him, Chase rents a room from Zoe (Amy Brenneman), a lonely middle-aged divorcee who draws out some tenderness from the fugitive and gives the tale of the old man a romantic spark.
The revelations here are rhythmic, the deduction of the characters often baldly stated. Nothing is all too surprising, but it’s competent enough to be compelling, especially when trained on Bridges’s toggling between fight, flight and retirement modes. Chase’s convincing physical stunts are all the most remarkable for the fact that Bridges, who is 72, nearly died during the production of this series from a combination of Covid and lymphoma, which landed him in the hospital for six weeks and, as he told the Hollywood Reporter, left him unable to stand for more than 45 seconds at a time.
Bridges is the standout among a cast that overmatches Steinberg and Levine’s writing. (I cringed when a young Chase, played by Bill Heck, says in a flashback scene in Afghanistan: “In a war where it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell the good guys and the bad guys …”) Lithgow can play the role of an aging bureaucrat with a china cabinet full of dirty secrets in his sleep. Alia Shawkat, sharp eyes twitching with inscrutable emotion, holds the screen as Angela Adams, Harper’s FBI protege whose motives are difficult to parse. I wish there was double the screen time for Palestinian actor Leem Lubany as young Abbey Chase, a magnetic blend of grit, compassion and exacting judgment in just a handful of scenes.
Yet, this being The Old Man, there is little room for the women in a plot that boils down to two old frenemies circling each other into a likely final standoff (or rapprochement). Harper claims, in the third episode, that their game “has no rules. Its puzzles have no solutions, they just lead to other puzzles. That’s what makes this game so interesting.” But the puzzles aren’t that complicated, the jig not that lawless. The Old Man breaks no rules of the action genre other than a hero of an unlikely age, but plays by them dutifully enough that it’s occasionally gripping, frequently interesting, and never less than watchable.