FX's 'The Old Man' Lets Jeff Bridges Show Off His Particular Set of Skills
This spy thriller pits the Oscar winner against John Lithgow in a surprisingly brutal, often gripping tale of deception.
If you ever scroll through the on-demand action movie offerings on iTunes or a similar service, it can feel like there's an arms race going on between Hollywood's aging male stars. Though the genre has always been open to grizzled heroes willing to take their lumps, the release of the Liam Neeson dad-breaks-bad thriller Taken in 2008 and militarized super-friends team-up The Expendables in 2010 signaled a larger shift in the "movies about guys waving guns around" market. Across different budget levels, and with varying creative results, over-60 actors like Neeson, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Dolph Lundgren continue to pump out movies that often pull them in for one last job. (There's a cute name for the ones they barely show up in: the "geezer teaser.") Even actors not exactly known for running slow-motion from explosions or choking out henchmen have heeded the call.
Though it arrives in prestige TV packaging—adapted from a novel, pilot directed by an A-lister, and anchored around a star best known for feature film work—The Old Man, FX's new spy thriller starring Jeff Bridges as a now-retired CIA hotshot who has to go on the run, isn't that different in concept or premise from a number of VOD action titles. The climactic fight of the first episode, which finds Bridges deploying a John Wick-ian set of physical maneuvers, is carefully composed by director Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Far From Home) in the one-take style that's become increasingly on trend in action filmmaking that prizes technical virtuosity over more traditional shooting styles. You come away from it exhausted on Bridges's behalf: It would probably be easier for the Oscar winner to play a scheming billionaire or a doting grandpa. Instead, he's bleeding out in the dirt.
Based on a 2017 thriller by veteran writer Thomas Perry, The Old Man takes time to build out its world before delivering the Bridges beat-downs. The 72-year-old star plays Dan Chase, a gentle retiree who recently lost his wife, speaks often to his daughter on the phone, and cares for two excessively cute dogs. Watts and the show's co-creators, Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, weaponize the natural warmth and soulfulness of Bridges: There are few actors who can convey a sense of inner-peace and tranquility with the same ease. His gait, his ability to listen, and his pleasing stillness suggest a man who can feel comfortable anywhere. After all, this is The Dude. But, like with many of the best roles Bridges has played over the years, Dan Chase deploys that placidity to cover up a more complicated history.
The intricacies of that history, which involves a lifetime of intelligence work and a shady series of missions in Afghanistan in the '80s, get slowly teased out in flashbacks and in conversations with slightly ornery, occasionally tender FBI director Harold Harper, played with a melancholy touch by John Lithgow. The specifics of why Chase is now getting hunted by the organization that trained him are some of the least compelling parts of this show. If you've seen FX's own The Americans, Homeland, or 24, the more white-knuckle precursor to so many modern TV action thrillers, then the cloak-and-dagger espionage material will feel familiar. "You have no idea how different the game is from the last time you played it," says Lithgow's Harper to Chase at one point. Judging from the first four episodes made available for review, the game he's referring to remains about as full of deception, ego, and professional rivalry as you'd expect.
On some level, The Old Man feels keenly aware of its limitations. Wisely, the series leans into the skill and grace of its cast, which also includes Amy Brenneman (The Leftovers) and Alia Shawkat (Search Party) in pivotal roles that grow more complicated as the show progresses. Scenes that might play as exposition-dumps in a more streamlined film or a conventional network shoot-em-up are given space and time to let the performers find nuance, humor, and personality in the writing. That can create some pacing issues as you wait for the inevitable twists and turns, but that patience also provides Bridges and Lithgow plenty of room to build these characters out, humanizing their unethical actions and evoking the sense of loss that comes with burying your identity for decades in service to an indifferent institution. Even as it ponders questions of death and mortality, emphasizing the creaky bones of its battered protagonist, The Old Man moves like it has all the time in the world.