The Old Guard, 2020.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
A covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered.
In an age where the vast majority of comic book movies are glossy $150-200 million tentpoles, modesty – no matter how comparative – can prove refreshing. And amid the bizarre scarcity of mid-budget comic book flicks, something like The Old Guard – adapted from Greg Rucka’s acclaimed source – has the potential to fill an underserved niche, replacing endless green screen bombast with a strong emphasis on practical filmmaking and character-driven drama.
Yet while the film certainly has this and a lot else working in its favour – not least a compelling premise and strong cast – the irony is that this mishmash of A-Team-esque badasses-on-a-mission romp and superhero flick trips over itself as it needlessly strains to be a wider-reaching epic with franchise promise.
Andy (Charlize Theron) is the leader of an elite mercenary unit defined by its members’ shared Special Set of Skills; she and her cohort are centuries-old immortals able to recover from enormously traumatic injuries, albeit requiring them to live a nomadic existence free of exterior connections.
Things change forever, however, when an American soldier, Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), finds her dormant abilities unlocked and is telepathically drawn to the group. This is all while Merrick (Harry Melling), the weaselly head of a scientific conglomerate, wishes to exploit their abilities for his own gain.
Despite that vague early-2000s setup, there is still plenty of room here for a gonzo, self-aware B-movie blast, but at the end of the day, The Old Guard‘s main handicap is that it’s just not particularly fun, fashioned instead as a generic, globe-trotting actioner with a surprisingly tepid supernatural edge.
If the recent Vin Diesel vehicle Bloodshot was an exericse in how not to present a near-immortal protagonist to audiences, the invulnerable quintet here at least fares somewhat better. Forgiving the film’s disappointingly scant approach to its heroes’ intriguing mythology – unfurled here largely through exposition-laden flashbacks – the script, penned by Rucka himself, keenly delves into the existential issues associated with a never-ending life.
Having to witness the deaths of most everyone you love, eventually forgetting the faces of those people, and the fear of being caught and sealed away all weigh heavily on the central characters in evident ways. And yet, The Old Guard too often shelves character nuance in favour of a basic heroes-go-rogue plot with a mildly diverting superhero gloss.
If the narrative does engineer some circumstances to lend the invincible heroes’ plight more urgent stakes, what hobbles the film for much of its runtime is the clear absence of an attention-grabbing villain. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor’s morally flexible stuffed shirt Copley has the makings of an appealing antagonist, ultimately the main duties are fobbed off on Merrick, whose plot to use the team’s genetic material for his own gain couldn’t be pulled more enthusiastically from the Maniacal Villain Handbook. That he has no mustache to twirl apparently passes for restraint.
The bigger shame, though, is that Rucka of all people adapts his own story into such a guff-filled chatter-fest. Mission objectives are laid out with all the robotic simplicity of a mid-90s video game cutscene, and it’s tough not to chuckle at characters making straight-faced, paragraph-long lore dumps, ratting all the crucial information off as if reading listlessly from an auto-cue.
Though clearly marketed as an action film, its aspirations to sustained, frenetic mayhem are surprisingly slight. Nobody needed Extraction-grade continuous carnage to be satisfied, but much of the movie is defined by short, minute-long bursts of gunfire and fisticuffs, which hardly deliver on all that squad-led potential.
The fight choreography sings intermittently, especially whenever Charlize Theron is handed a large blunt weapon, yet inconsistent editing and camera coverage occasionally render the action a chore. Furthermore, in spite of the streaming release, the lack of cathartic violence on offer is disappointing; though it’s certainly not a PG-13-level movie, the gore feels bizarrely pared-down, save for one gnarly bone-breaking kill in the third act.
More than anything, though, there’s just a lack of creativity to the action sequences no matter the film’s inherently amusing gimmick, many of the dust-ups distinguished only by director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (Beyond the Lights) peculiar inclusion of tonally jarring pop music. All in all it amounts to an acceptable if totally unremarkable technical package, enlivened ever-so-slightly by the film’s frequent trips to new locales, ranging from South Sudan, to Afghanistan, the UK, and France.
As won’t surprise many, the pic is saved from ever dipping below watchability due to the solid efforts of an over-qualified cast. Though at times bearing a troubling likeness to her Aeon Flux protag, Theron is as unflappably terrific as you’d expect; she’s a pro in the strong-headed heroine stakes and delivers as much as anyone could really be asked to with this material. Better still, she really makes the audience feel Andy’s emotional turmoil at having lived for so long.
Matthias Schoenaerts also does fine work as her teammate Booker, particularly during a mid-film monologue so stirring it almost feels like it belongs in another movie entirely. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s KiKi Layne meanwhile brings a wealth of charisma to her part as Nile, the newest member of the group, acquitting herself well even when she’s saddled with a few creaky comic relief one-liners.
Less-satisfying, however, is the rather piecemeal treatment of the group’s two peripheral characters, Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), for as wonderful as it is to see a gay couple represented in a movie of this genre and scale, the pair sadly aren’t defined by much more than that.
Elsewhere, Chiwetel Ejiofor is thoroughly wasted, spending the bulk of his role sat in a chair or standing in place dumping plot, while Harry Melling’s antagonist Merrick is an irksome fop with zero intimidation factor.
Like the majority of Netflix’s other franchisable tentpole films – such as Bright and 6 Underground – The Old Guard tries far too hard to please a wide demographic cross-section, in turn denying the possibility that it might do much interesting with its neat, pulpy logline.
Theron keeps it always on the right side of watchable, but the programmatic script and low action quotient are compounded by a sluggishly paced 124-minute runtime. And because this is, for any indications otherwise, a superhero movie, it of course has to wrap up with a sequel-baiting final tease which couldn’t be much more predictable – or cynical.
Despite an appealingly nutty premise and a reliably game Charlize Theron, The Old Guard can’t escape the trappings of its generic plotting, expository dialogue, and underwhelming action.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.