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Dan Chase, the protagonist of FX’s new drama The Old Man, is on the run. He’s being chased — see what they did there? — by several agencies of the American government, at least one deadly contractor and international adversaries. He’s a clever man, but his primary antagonist is time — a past catching up to him and a future becoming more finite.
It’s a part made for Jeff Bridges, one of those actors who was born for and into Hollywood stardom and who has grown gracefully from golden boy to sage septuagenarian on movie screens nationwide. As if the star’s gravitas weren’t enough, it’s almost impossible to watch The Old Man without thinking about the show’s delays for both the COVID pandemic and Bridges’ cancer — without considering time.
As a thriller, The Old Man doesn’t always deliver. Its internal logic is fitful and its backstory perfunctory. As a showcase for Bridges and John Lithgow, the rare performer nearly able to match his co-star indelible role for indelible role, The Old Man is far more satisfying, though audiences are going to yearn for more direct interaction between the two note-perfect leads and less of the genre filler that extends three of the four episodes sent to critics to over an hour.
The Old Man is adapted by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, who take great liberties with Thomas Perry’s novel. As we begin, Dan is a Vermont widower, living with two very good dogs in quiet seclusion that concerns his unseen daughter, Emily. When an assassin shows up at his house, it becomes instantly clear that Dan Chase is more than your average senior citizen with regular doctors’ appointments and irregular sleep. Back in the 1980s, Dan (Bill Heck, in flashbacks) was an intelligence operative in Afghanistan, and after decades in hiding, consequences are coming, whether Dan deserves them or not.
The man on Dan’s tail is Harold Harper (Lithgow), a tenuous ally back in the day, now an FBI bigwig in the last stages of a decorated career, battling grief of his own and nurturing an intense protégée in Alia Shawkat’s Angela. Harold isn’t sure he wants to catch Dan, but there may be more powerful forces at play.
As the game of cat and mouse stretches across the country, and across their shared history, The Old Man — the title could apply to either of them — blurs the line between predator and prey, between hero and villain, between the men that Dan and Harold used to be and the men they’ve become. In some ways it feels like a companion piece to Apple TV+’s Slow Horses or Amazon’s Night Sky, dramas in which familiar genre elements are made fresh through the focus on maturing core characters. Eventually, somebody will finally adapt Don Winslow’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, one of the best stories of this type.
Much of the series’ moral ambiguity isn’t in Perry’s book, which is fast-moving, but thin, especially when it comes to Dan’s history. Steinberg and Levine have added timely references to Mujahideen and evil Russians. It’s an improvement over the bland money heist on the page, yet those elements are not explored sufficiently to play as more than a low-rent Homeland knockoff eating up 10 to 15 minutes per episode.
The changes made for the present-day story are more effective, especially the decision to transform Harper from a personality-free suit into a well-matched contemporary struggling with his own need for late-in-life reinvention.
If only the writers could have concocted more opportunities for Lithgow and Bridges to go head-to-head with the series’ muscular if exposition-heavy dialogue. They share a couple of phone conversations in the premiere, and then it’s long stretches of nothing. Keeping the cat and mouse separate is a staple of the genre, but even The Fugitive gave Gerard the chance to say he didn’t care about Kimble’s innocence before letting them move parallel to each other for most of the movie.
Lithgow, in a part that combines his patented ability to look simultaneously like an avuncular bureaucrat and a looming menace, is mostly paired with a nicely understated Shawkat. Bridges has to get value out of scenes with Amy Brenneman as a divorcee who becomes enmeshed in Dan’s escapades for reasons that are strange and inexplicable here yet somehow still vastly better than in the book.
At once grizzled and robust, Bridges doesn’t really need anybody to play off of, including the strong if slightly adrift Brenneman. His gruff voice conveys intelligence and weariness (and while I guess I appreciate Heck not attempting to do a Young Jeff Bridges impression, it’s hard to find visible connections between the two versions of the character). Pilot director Jon Watts is careful to stage action scenes with a grinding, slow-building intensity that befits a man whose endurance is what makes him lethal. There’s a rough hand-to-hand fight in the premiere, bathed in the red light from a stopped car, that’s probably the best action scene Watts has ever directed, blockbuster Spider-Man films be damned.
Expanding Lithgow’s role from the book and attempting to justify some of the decisions for Brenneman’s character leaves little room for some other very good actors to do much of anything. It’s great to spot folks like Joel Grey, playing a CIA legend with connections to Dan and Harold, and Hiam Abbass as Dan’s deceased wife, but they’re used sparingly. Gbenga Akinnagbe has some moments as a special ops veteran recruited to stop Dan, though it’s a little disheartening if you know that in the book, his character is actually the main empathetic adversary.
Bonus points for Dan’s two canine sidekicks, excellent, albeit in underwritten roles. Sure, they’re mostly there for sentiment and narrative expediency, but woe betide Steinberg and Levine if anything happens to those puppers. Perhaps Dan needs to suffer for his sins. They do not.
Dan’s journey from youthful idealism to less-youthful fatigue — he’s introduced making multiple midnight trips to the bathroom, like a hunky, past-his-prime poster boy for Flomax — is presented as a classically American one. It remains to be seen whether the second half of the season will come down on the side of Dan being a hero or an antihero. Not every actor can make us invest in that tension, but Jeff Bridges is one of the ones who can.
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