The first episode of The Old Man (Disney+) is a little misleading. It sets itself up as a meaty action thriller in the vein of Taken, with Jeff Bridges as the tough guy slowly picking off his enemies from him. As “Dan Chase” (although his name is prone to changing for reasons that soon become evident) Bridges cuts a lonely figure, rambling around a quiet house with only his dogs for company. There is ample medication by the bed. He struggles to put his socks on. He is haunted by memories of his late wife, who regularly unsettles his dreams of him.
While his bones may be creaking, this old man obviously knows his way around a gun. Nothing is as it seems. Dan speaks to his daughter Emily regularly by phone, but then puts the phone in the microwave and turns it on. (What setting do you use to fry lines of communication? Popcorn or jacket potato?) His dogs are more than beloved pets. And he gives Better Call Saul’s hitman, Mike Ehrmantraut, a run for his money from him when it comes to DIY home security solutions. Is he paranoid, or are they really out to get him?
It’s not giving too much away to say that yes, they are out to get him. As well as a solid supply of statins, he has bags of money and fake IDs stashed away. It turns out that Dan was a CIA operative who went rogue decades earlier, and has been on the run, living under an assumed identity, ever since. But the people he has been running from are catching up with him. He is given a choice: he can disappear for ever, though that means Emily’s safety is never quite guaranteed. Or, he can stand his ground and fight, using the many questionable methods he picked up in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war.
It seems hokey at first, a by-the-book espionage thriller, particularly when characters have to seriously deliver lines such as, “I did what I did and I’d do it again because it led to us.” But early hints suggest there is more substance. For a start, there’s Bridges, magnetic in every scene, whether he is rolling around on the floor with a much younger and fitter enemy, or driving away from conflict, making a split-second decision that might have catastrophic consequences. Dan Chase is slow and wheezy, but Bridges imbues him with just the right amount of buried menace and rage to indicate that even now, you wouldn’t want to cross him.
The rest of the cast, too, show that this is serious business. Joel Gray pops up. Then Alia Shawkat appears. But Bridges’ main co-star, the cat to his mouse, is John Lithgow as Harold Harper, an assistant director at the FBI, who is tasked with helping track Chase down. Harper is reeling from a recent family tragedy but he has “skin in the game”, having worked with Bridges’ character long ago in Afghanistan.
It becomes clear by the end of the second episode that there is far more to The Old Man than car crashes and bloody fight scenes. Many of the relationships are explored further in flashbacks, with different actors playing younger versions of the leads in Afghanistan. This muddies the waters over who the good guys are, and who the bad guys will be. It has hints of Homeland, when Homeland was sensitive, and drip-feeds information to keep you hooked.
The age of our main action hero, if we can call him that, adds a more contemplative angle, too. Chase hasn’t been actively on the run for decades, and everything is different now. He makes mistakes. When he first “disappeared”, the technology that the FBI has now could barely have been imagined. “Starting again, it seems so much harder than I remember,” he says; it’s certainly true that it takes more to vanish these days than a fake ID, a facility with firearms and an ability to lie.
I thought The Old Man was going to be another spy thriller, the kind of thing where gruff blokes shout and shoot. But oddly enough, when the pace slows down, it reveals itself to be more clever than that. It’s still packed with gratifying twists and turns, and doesn’t shy away from a real shock or two each episode, but there’s a lot of additional pleasure to be had in watching a series like this, when those twists are handled with expert precision, and executed very well.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism