The Old Man review: Jeff Bridges’ riveting Disney+ thriller proves the spy genre can achieve poignance

At first it’s hard to believe The Old Man could be a spy thriller. The Disney+ series opens with mighty Jeff Bridges groaning to put on socks. His elderly but AWOL CIA agent – the too aptly named Dan Chase – makes doctor’s appointments to discuss ailments he doesn’t even have. “When I was a little girl, you were a king,” his daughter tells him, seemingly testing out lines for dad’s eulogy.

Soon, though, the diminished king’s past catches up with him, forcing a return to imperial form. Turns out it’s like riding a bike. By the end of the first hour, Dan’s polishing off the upstarts sent to apprehend him with the kind of lethal timing that belongs in a Bond film. When one foe spits, “F*** you, old man,” at the end of a drag-out fistfight, Dan has his dogs – who must have been lurking nearby the entire time – finish him. Why didn’t he call in the dogs earlier? Probably because this way looks cooler.

Based on Thomas Perry’s 2017 novel, this seven-episode series takes its time in fleshing out exactly what mysterious misdeed, committed during the Soviet-Afghan War, Dan’s been on the run from these past 40 years. It also dangles the connection between Dan and Harold Harper (John Lithgow), the FBI G-man who’s been called back from retirement to pursue him. Ultimately, the particulars don’t matter as much as the personalities involved. The Old Man is a show about how far these men will go – even near the end of their lives – to save themselves.

The action is interrupted by flashbacks that reluctantly connect the past to the present. We see Dan, played by Bill Heck in the 1980s, when he was a young idealist among the Mujahideen, and we watch him make the reckless decision to desert the cause. Heck is compelling in his role, as are Alia Shawkat as Harold’s stone-faced protegee and EJ Bonilla as an agent who threatens to unearth Harold’s secrets. Too many of the series’ characters are prone to unnatural speechifying, but usually they get around to saying something of interest.

Alia Shawkat and John Lithgow in ‘The Old Man’ (FX)
Alia Shawkat and John Lithgow in ‘The Old Man’ (FX)

Bridges, though, is captivating playing the many sides of his wizened spook – a widow haunted by his dead wife, a father confronting his mortality, an irrepressible charmer who manages to snag a date (a tender, affecting Amy Brenneman) on the lam. The garden-variety spy patter could be lifted from Taken or Mission: Impossible, but Bridges delivers it in a convincing growl. “Any more you send at me, I’m sending back in bags,” Dan tells Harold in his own “very particular set of skills” moment. “Anyone you send at my kid, I’m sending back in pieces.”

So many of Hollywood’s secret agents – James Bond, Ethan Hunt – refuse to get old and fair enough. It’s a lot less fun to watch a creaky old man who has trouble with his socks muster the strength for one last sleeper hold. But Dan and Harold don’t refuse to give up spy life; they just can’t escape it. It’s their sombre reluctance that lends this familiar cat-and-mouse thriller poignance to transcend the genre.