Don’t count an old dog out just because he’s old. There are more than a few tricks up its deadly sleeve from him.
As a title, The Old Man doesn’t give off the impression of a high-octane spy thriller.
And it’s not – a high-octane one that is. It is a spy thriller but much like the more lumbering movements of its titular character, it is a luxuriously paced, almost meditative thriller.
The Old Man stars Jeff Bridges as Dan Chase, a former CIA agent who’s been living off the grid for decades, having self-exiled after a past incident.
By himself after the death of his wife Abbey (Hiam Abbass), Dan lives a contented life with two very loyal dogs. That quiet life is shattered when an assassin comes for him with ill intent and a silencer. Dan’s retirement plan is off the table.
On the run after all these years, he finds himself fending off contract killers and a determined espionage establishment which wants him recaptured.
Among those leading the search for him is Harold Harper (John Lithgow), now the FBI’s assistant director for counterintelligence. Harold is also running his own agenda and the last thing he wants is Dan’s return from him.
The two used to work together during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s and some stuff went down out of Kabul station that neither wanted to resurface.
But that period is the key to why Dan is being hunted now, with the re-emergence of a figure from their past, the person who’s really pulling the strings.
There’s a defiance baked into The Old Man‘s DNA. Dan may be old, he may be decades behind the latest spy tricks, using tin cans as an early warning system rather than some hi-tech surveillance, but he’s resourceful and he’s smart.
At the start of the series, he’s worried about aging, having seen Abbey’s cognitive deterioration due to Huntington’s disease. But his instincts of him are strong, having sensed something was off which prompted him to even put up those tin cans on a string.
There’s a resonant thread about obsolescence that runs through the show – how can a has-been like Dan possibly stay ahead of an entire modern government and extralegal machinery that is aimed at bringing him in?
The Old Man has a parallel, real-world narrative that examines that same question, one which asks if Bridges, 72, is someone who can front and drive a spy thriller with its requisite action stunts.
Bridges can throw and take a punch but the series wisely also shows Dan as really hurting when he does. He’s not backflipping off the ground like James Bond or John Wick. He’s limping, he’s bruised and his recovery from him is far from instant.
This line of work is hard on the body and it’s particularly hard on a septuagenarian.
The Old Man is prosaic in terms of the story itself – there’s intrigue, subterfuge and hidden agendas but that’s all par for the course in a genre teeming with tropes. Close calls are part of the storytelling lexicon.
what elevates The Old Man to more than just generic are the performances. Lithgow is reliably effective as a man who’s spent decades keeping secrets – he brings so much gravitas and humanity to any role. Alia Shawkat is really strong as Harold’s protégé Angela, especially when more of her motivations for her are revealed in subsequent episodes. It’s a more restrained performance from the young actor whose best known roles (Arrested Development, Search Party) have called on her to make bigger choices than the ones here.
And, of course, there’s Bridges. The Old Man is Bridges’ first proper TV role since a few episodes on his dad’s showcase, The Lloyd Bridges Showin 1962 and he’s making a full run of the extended screentime.
His exhausted survivor Dan is packed with pathos and determination. It’s a very compelling performance – but almost every Bridges performance is so it’s no surprise he’s so watchable here.
The Old Man is on Disney+ from Wednesday, July 13