Dan Chase, the protagonist of the new drama from FX The old man, is on the run. He’s being chased – see what they did there? — by multiple US government agencies, at least one murderous contractor, and international adversaries. He’s a smart man, but his main antagonist is time – a past that catches up with him and a future that becomes more finite.
It’s a part made for Jeff Bridges, one of those actors who was born for and into Hollywood stardom and gracefully transitioned from golden boy to wise septuagenarian on movie screens nationwide. As if the star’s gravity weren’t enough, it’s almost impossible to watch The old man without thinking about the show’s delays for the COVID pandemic and Bridges’ cancer — regardless of the weather.
The old man
More convincing as a showcase of actors than as a thriller.
In thriller form, The old man does not always deliver. Its internal logic is unstable and its backstory superficial. As a showcase for Bridges and John Lithgow, the rare performer almost able to match his indelible co-starring role for an indelible role, The old man is far more satisfying, though audiences yearn for a more direct interplay between the two perfect leads and less 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. At first, Dan is a widower from Vermont, living with two very good dogs in quiet isolation that concerns his invisible daughter, Emily. When an assassin shows up at his home, it becomes instantly clear that Dan Chase is more than your average old man with regular doctor’s appointments and erratic sleep. In the 1980s, Dan (Bill Heck, in flashbacks) was an intelligence agent in Afghanistan, and after decades of hiding, consequences are coming whether Dan deserves them or not.
The man on Dan’s tail is Harold Harper (Lithgow), a tenuous ally at the time, now an FBI bigwig in the final stages of a decorated career, battling his own grief and nurturing an intense protege in Angela by Alia Shawkat. 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 spreads across the country, and through their shared history, The old man – the title could apply to either – blurs the line between predator and prey, between hero and villain, between the men Dan and Harold were and the men they became. In some ways it feels like a companion to Apple TV+ slow horses or the one from Amazon night sky, dramas in which familiar genre elements are refreshed with an emphasis on the maturing of the main characters. Eventually, someone will finally adapt Don Winslow Frankie Machine’s Winterone of the best stories of this type.
Much of the show’s moral ambiguity is not found in Perry’s book, which is quick, but thin, especially when it comes to Dan’s story. Steinberg and Levine added timely references to mujahideen and evil Russians. It’s an improvement over stealing bland money on the page, but those elements aren’t explored enough to play more than low rent Country knockoff eating up to 10-15 minutes per episode.
The changes to the actual story are more effective, especially the decision to transform Harper from a personalityless suit into a well-matched contemporary grappling with his own belated need for reinvention.
If only the writers could have cooked up more opportunities for Lithgow and Bridges to go head-to-head with the show’s brawny but exposition-heavy dialogue. They share a few phone conversations at first, then it’s long stretches of nothing. Keeping cat and mouse separate is a genre staple, 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 game that combines his patented ability to look like both an avuncular bureaucrat and a looming threat, is mostly paired with a low-key Shawkat. Bridges has to take advantage of the scenes with Amy Brenneman as a divorcee who gets entangled in Dan’s escapades for weird and inexplicable reasons here, but still far better than in the book.
Both grizzled and rugged, Bridges really doesn’t need anyone to play, including the strong but slightly drifting Brenneman. His gruff voice conveys intelligence and weariness (and while I suppose I appreciate that Heck isn’t trying 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 deliver action scenes with an overwhelming, slow-paced intensity befitting a man whose stamina is what makes him deadly. There’s a tough hand-to-hand fight in the premiere, bathed in the red light of a stopped car, it’s probably the best action scene Watts has ever done, the hit Spider-Man movies are damned.
Expanding Lithgow’s role from the book and trying to justify some of the decisions about Brenneman’s character leaves little room for other very good actors to do much. It’s great to spot the likes of Joel Grey, playing a CIA legend with ties to Dan and Harold, and Hiam Abbass as Dan’s late wife, but they’re used sparingly. Gbenga Akinnagbe has a few moments as the special ops veteran recruited to stop Dan, though it’s a little daunting considering that in the book his character is actually the empathetic primary adversary.
Bonus points for Dan’s two excellent canine sidekicks, albeit in guaranteed roles. Sure, they’re mostly here for sentiment and narrative expediency, but woe betide Steinberg and Levine if anything happens to those pups. Maybe Dan needs to suffer for his sins. They don’t.
Dan’s journey from youthful idealism to not-so-youthful tiredness – he began to make multiple nightly trips to the bathroom, like a handsome boy on Flomax – is billed as an American classic. It remains to be seen if the second half of the season will end on the side of Dan being a hero or an anti-hero. Not every actor can get us invested in this tension, but Jeff Bridges is one of those who can.