Just when we think we’re pulled back in, they push us out.
There’s much to admire about the FX action-drama series “The Old Man,” starting with the powerful and nuanced work from Jeff Bridges, who has survived life-threatening battles with COVID and cancer, and there are some stunningly effective moments that play like a septuagenarian take on “The Fugitive” crossed with a “Bourne” movie.
But virtually every time we’re ready to fully commit, the script veers off in a direction that defies plausibility, stalls the main storyline, or introduces a new wrinkle that is completely out of left field. It’s never a good thing when you’re asking, How could they have missed THAT all these years? when you should be engrossed by each turn of events.
At 72, Bridges still has that effortlessly natural and rumpled charm, and we immediately buy into his note-perfect characterization of one Dan Chase, a widower who is living in the woods of Vermont, getting up several times a night to go to the bathroom, haunted by memories of his late wife and her slow and painful death, and taking his ultra-loyal Rottweilers, Dave and Carol, with him everywhere he goes – even for a doctor’s appointment, where he introduces the startled physician to the pups and the doc says, “Dave and Carol are your dogs. I got confused for a second there.”
“Why, because they have names?”
“Well, because they have people’s names. Those are people’s names.”
“Not in this case.”
That’s some good stuff, as “The Old Man” eases us into Chase’s seemingly uncomplicated existence – until the moment a hitman breaks into the house in the middle of the night, and Dan dispatches the assailant, stuffs the obligatory Go Bag with passports, cash, guns and a change of shirts, and hits the road. He calls his unseen grown daughter Emily and says, “They found me,” in a tone that lets us know he knew this day was coming.
Turns out Dan is a former CIA operative who went rogue in Afghanistan, got mixed up in some serious “Lawrence of Arabia”-type complications and spent the next 30-plus years hiding in plain sight in the States, living under an assumed name and staying one step ahead of anyone trying to find him. (The always solid Bill Heck plays Dan in the flashback sequences.) Now, the chase is on, so to speak, with the FBI trying to locate Dan and bring him in before the goons hired by a revenge-minded Afghan warlord can get to him first.
The great John Lithgow is perfectly cast as Harold Harper, a top-ranking FBI official who has a long and complicated history with Dan and is worried that secrets that have been buried for decades will resurface, potentially ruining Harold’s legacy and everything he’s built, professionally and personally. Alia Shawkat plays Harold’s star protege, the whip-smart FBI agent Angela, while E.J. Bonilla is Agent Raymond Waters, a cocky and nosy operative who doesn’t trust Harold OR Angela.
In the most problematic development in the series thus far (the first four episodes were made available to reviewers), the wonderful Amy Brenneman is saddled with playing a character who seems shoehorned into the proceedings. Brenneman’s Zoe McDonald is a recent divorcee who rents the guest house on her property to Dan, asks him on a date within days and finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time when ANOTHER assassin comes calling. Next thing poor Zoe knows, she’s forced to go on the run with Dan, posing as his wife and berating him for getting her into this mess – that is, when she’s not delivering long monologues about her failed marriage.
The monologues. We get a lot of those in “The Old Man.” Here’s Harold Harper, doling out his patented wisdom and insights to Angela: “I taught you to play the game like a cop. To a cop, a puzzle is a thing to be solved. But the other game, the one that Chase and I played when we were young, the one I’m starting to realize we’re playing again – that game has no rules. Its puzzles have no solutions. They just lead to other puzzles. That’s what makes this game so interesting. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s a hell of a drug.”
In the hands of Lithgow, it’s kind of a magnificent speech – but then you take a beat and ask, what did he just say there? Would anybody in that position ever talk like that, and if so, why? It’s flowery fluff.
So it goes with “The Old Man.” We get some incredibly high-level action and hand-to-hand fight sequences (the first two episodes are helmed by Jon Watts, who directed the last three “Spider-Man” movies), and the expected strong performances from Bridges, Lithgow, et al., but the pace is sometimes excruciatingly slow, the flashback sequences have a kind of B-movie vibe, and there are simply too many times when these really smart characters do some really dumb things, just to keep the wheels of the plot in motion.