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‘The Old Man’ review: Jeff Bridges struggles in routine FX drama

Don’t sleep on dogs, though.

One last game. One last robbery. One last job. Movies and TV are full of swansongs, many of which serve to resurrect retired characters or shine a light on actors beloved by retirees. “The Old Man,” starring Jeff Bridges as a former CIA agent brought out of hiding, sits firmly in this latter camp and doesn’t overwork himself trying to separate himself from the pack. Instead, Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine’s adaptation of Thomas Perry’s 2017 novel relies on familiarity to craft useful drama with above-average action scenes. Bridges, who also serves as an executive producer, is front and center, dragging himself out of bed to pee every few hours, but still resourceful enough to put the young snappers in their place. If her grizzled appeal isn’t enough for you — and chances are it is for many — the cast is brimming with talent, from a generous adversary in John Lithgow to the volatile love interest of Amy Brenneman.

For some, these talents could be put to better use in a more radical context. For others, there are also two dogs, played by A+ puppies Dave and Carol, who follow Bridges wherever he goes. These impeccably trained Rottweilers are a trick in themselves – an asset to their handler and the show, no doubt, while evoking regular responses of “Aww, now it is a good dog! If the simple pleasures of a dude and his dogs roaming America, taking down the bad guys, sounds like your desired entertainment, “The Old Man” will provide it. Nothing more, well, that remains to be seen.

Meet Dan Chase (Bridges). Dan has trouble sleeping. His nights are either interrupted by a lingering bladder, nightmares of his dead wife, or both. After caring for her through a losing battle with Huntington’s disease, Dan pays close attention to his own mental state. But is he just getting old or is some mysterious, undiagnosed disease to blame? Along with these fears, Dan becomes paranoid. He looks sideways at strangers in his small town in Vermont. He installs DIY alarms just outside his bedroom. On the phone, his daughter assures him that he is fine, that everything is fine – but when has a parent ever obtained such assurances from their child?

Of course, Dan is soon right. An unnamed intruder breaks into his house and sends him on the run. The way Dan dispatches his unknown assailant tells us that this is no ordinary widower. He has a particular set of skills, and they haven’t exactly dulled with age. During the first four episodes of the first season, Dan’s story is distributed in batches. For one, his name isn’t really Dan. On the other hand, he’s a former CIA guy and not much of a welcome presence at Langley’s reunion. Finding out who Dan is and what he’s been up to is part of the intrigue that drives the first few hours, though the answers are hardly unpredictable. Still, given the steady (some might say slow!) pace of director Jon Watts’ two entries, confirming your suspicions with every other commercial break helps keep things going.

Bits of the plot are bluntly laid out in long stretches of dialogue, but Watts grabs our attention with carefully blocked action. The first is built around a series of long takes, some of which simply take advantage of Bridges’ rugged naturalism. Always easy on the eyes, the Oscar-winning actor portrays Dan with a reserved and wary demeanor appropriate for a fugitive spy. But he knows how to compose a look with the best of them, raising his forehead in simultaneous alarm and admiration, or narrowing his entire face in an inscrutable stare. Watching him work non-stop is a pleasure in itself, but that’s not the only reason Watts keeps the camera rolling minute after minute. Physically, Bridges also plays into people’s understatement, dragging himself along in small stutters before going into battle mode with alarming force. Watts reflects his star by lulling his audience into a deceptive calm, only to shatter that serenity not with your typical hard cut, but a flurry of movement through his established frame.

Amy Brenneman and Jeff Bridges in “The Old Man”

Courtesy of FX / YouTube

Scenes like a lengthy hand-to-hand squabble near the end of the premiere prove compelling. Executing a compelling oner is intriguing on its own, but seeing Bridges – who was diagnosed with lymphoma mid-production and is now, thankfully, in remission – pulling off every punch is doubly satisfying. No matter how many stunt doubles slip into it, it’s great to a) see one of our best actors alive and literally kicking, and b) get a meta reminder of the undeniable toughness of Dan. Not once is there an obvious move or cut meant to hide who’s really fighting, which only makes it all the more believable that Dan (and Bridges) can still do it.

The rest of “The Old Man” doesn’t exactly live up to those thrills. Dan’s main adversary – an old ally named Harold Harper who is now a high-ranking FBI director – is well fleshed out and given additional emotional weight by Lithgow. Their evolving backstory speaks to one of the show’s larger themes, spoken aloud by Brenneman’s reluctant owner during a very strange dinner party: “No one ever sees themselves as [the villain,]she says. “There’s a villain in every story, and maybe that’s why: the only one who can play that role is the one who can’t see it happening.”

Maybe Dan isn’t such a good guy. Maybe Harold isn’t so bad. Perhaps they are all mixed up in a game where such designations are beyond their control – beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. Still, “The Old Man” seems comfortable playing with expectations rather than usurping them. Acknowledging that older white men — especially wealthy and powerful older white men — may need to reassess their heritage is steps away from arguing that they should admit their wrongdoings or step aside altogether, and nothing in the first four episodes indicates Dan is on one or the other path. His risky behavior pays off. He’s still the toughest of the badass. He is decidedly not too old for this shit. With his faithful dogs strapped to his side, the FX action drama expects his audience to follow suit, enjoying Dan’s final and stubborn show of strength. If that’s okay with you, sit back and enjoy another swan song. It won’t be the last of its kind.

Category B-

“The Old Man” premieres two episodes Thursday, June 16 at 10 p.m. ET on FX. Stream episodes the next day on Hulu.

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