SERIES REVIEW – Disney Plus’ The Old Man is like its original title: although it’s essentially about a retired CIA agent and the former colleague who’s hunting him when there’s no action, it’s a real old-school pace. Interestingly enough, it remains entertaining despite this, but when the pace slows down, it gets a bit monotonous and boring.
There is an old storytelling rule that no one goes to the toilet when it comes to books and movies. Going to the bathroom violates Chekhov’s pistol principle that every detail must contribute to the overall narrative. Furthermore, no one wants to see the bathroom. Yet The Old Man begins with Jeff Bridges’ character going to relieve himself not once but thrice in a single night. He is, after all, an old man, as the series constantly reminds us. At one point, an assailant says, “Fuck you, old man”, in the middle of a knife fight, but later on, “old man” is constantly brought up.
All of this seems somewhat cruel, given Bridges’ recent personal calamity. He was “pretty close to death, ” with a long battle with COVID, then diagnosed with lymphoma and had to undergo chemotherapy last year. (Production was halted at the start of the pandemic and again after Bridges’ diagnosis.)
Bridges’ hereditary character has not changed now
Or it might seem cruel if it weren’t for the 72-year-old actor’s never-ending aura of Dude-like absent-minded detachment. Bridges has a style as ageless as a character in a Tom Waits song. His character, “retired” for thirty years, is a “sleeper agent” in another sense of the word: Dan Chase grumbles through dad jokes with the doctor, dad jokes with the waitress about reading glasses, and dad jokes about a late-night rendezvous. Chase has the kind of old-age grace that allows him to find the perfect Robert Plant band on the radio when he can’t get the Bluetooth to work on said date.
But Dan Chase is not your average laid-back grandpa. He’s an ex-CIA agent whose Connecticut a midnight assassin shatters tranquillity, alerted not by SimpliSafe or ADT, but by a sun-fungal alarm made of empty dog food cans strung on a string. And just like that, his disguise crumples, and he flees from his former bosses and his past, relying on his old skills, despite being told, “You have no idea how different the game is from the last time you played” or “You’re not who you remember”.
Liam Neeson remade
This plot is so familiar from the Liam Neeson biopic that it might be worth royalty. Even a damsel in distress is put in danger precisely because of Chase’s special powers. Bridges is also at home with the unsettling bouts of violence, which are somewhat unbelievable but all the more brutal and harsh. He looks utterly natural in the close-ups, which are surprisingly cruel and relentless compared to the rest of the series.
But all this is familiar enough from other films. The premise feels like a straightforward Soderbergh 90 Minutes or another low-key spy thriller, but it also strongly recalls bits of George Clooney’s The American.
The film is stylish right from the start, with intelligent opening scenes, thoughtfully pensive music, consistently superb direction and cinematography that pays close attention to every frame and acting, even in the supporting cast.
By the second episode, however, the backstory begins to feel overwrought when the conversation turns to “Langley” as if the place itself is an entity, and clichés reminiscent of Tom Clancy start to emerge from the series. Suited CIA agents pass around official-looking manila envelopes to each other as they take out their men, raising eyebrows and blaming each other, conducting the serious business of bureaucracy under the guise of protecting American freedom.
Haunted by the past, haunted by ghosts
But this story is mainly about the past. Flashbacks and the phone conversations and voice messages that fill the exposition come into play more and more often, often too neatly filling in the narrative gaps and sometimes leading to Shakespearean monologues by Chase’s daughter that doesn’t sound at all like a woman in her thirties talking to her father.
It’s also a ghost story, in a less symbolic way, as Chase’s deceased wife, Abbey, emerges as a ghost creepy enough to almost feel like a character in a completely different series.
The other elderly star of the series is John Lithgow, who plays Harold Harper, a former FBI and CIA chief. He is haunted by a dirty CIA encounter in the mountains of Afghanistan thirty years ago. Let’s just say he looks more like a high school chemistry teacher, with a perpetually sour and condescending expression. And Alia Shawk plays a young CIA employee who is Harper’s tenacious and loyal subordinate. Amy Brenneman plays Zoe, the quiet but firm conscience of the series, Chase’s initially reluctant female landlord, who quickly falls into Chase’s arms. Fortunately, Chase and Zoe’s relationship is also the source of tension in later episodes.
At once old and still relaxed
Bridges is both old and yet very relaxed, as in his youth, which suits him very well. But The Grand Old Man, like a real old man, is at its best when it moves at a thought-provoking pace. Bill Heck does a fine job as the young Chase in the Jack Ryan-style bloody backstory of his past, but it’s always a good feeling to return to his time with Bridges. Particularly in the quiet moments when he’s chopping onions or making ‘bulletproof’ coffee, or when he’s talking – as he often does – to his super-intelligent, brutish yet very cute Rottweilers Dave and Carol.
The year after her breakout performance in 1971’s The Last Picture Show, Bridges starred alongside Stacy Keach in John Huston’s hugely underrated Fat City. In the final scene, the two boxers are at opposite ends of their careers, sipping coffee with full-blown wounds and bruises on their faces. Keach’s character looks sympathetically at an elderly waiter: “Do you think he was ever young?” Bridges answers in his characteristically perfect, casual style, “No.”