About halfway through THE OLD GUARD, Netflix’s latest attempt at starting a franchise, I thought out loud: this is based on a comic book, isn’t it? All the tell-tale signs are there, mainly that it’s all set up to satisfy fans who like pointing at screens when they recognize something. For everyone else, well, you’re just out of luck. When THE OLD GUARD isn’t incomprehensible, it’s utterly boring.
Charlize Theron plays Andy (or Andromache of Stygia), leader of a group of immortals who’ve been traveling and fighting around the world for centuries. Their immortality takes form through a Wolverine-style healing factor, which brings them back from even the most gruesome deaths. Yet one day this immortality might end and their wounds will no longer heal, leaving them dead for good. Until that time comes, the quintet must make do with a world increasingly on the verge of total collapse.
When one of their routine gigs goes sour (apparently they sideline as mercenaries), the group must go on a roaring rampage of revenge to settle the score and wipe away any traces of their existence once more. Things turn even more complicated as a new immortal is born in the death of a young marine on the frontlines of Afghanistan. Then there’s the evil big pharma CEO who wants their blood to develop an all-encompassing medication that will make him rich and won’t stop at nothing to achieve his dastardly goals.
It’s all set up to satisfy fans who like pointing at screens when they recognize something.
If all that sounds disjointed and hokey, that’s because it is. In adapting his own material, writer Greg Rucka loads the script with everything except theme or character. There’s plenty of plot, but no story, and loads of exposition in place of drama or intrigue. We hear a lot about the trials and tribulations of this motley crew, but apart from a rare few (unconvincing and cheap) flashbacks there’s not much to cling onto.
The problem, as with most films relating to immortality, is that even these scant morsels are more interesting than the actual plot of the film. Andy’s past life with her friend/lover/companion Quynh (the always dazzling Veronica Ngo) could have been a film in its own right. The potential for an introspective action film about the struggle of not knowing which is the right side of history when time is irrelevant is always there, and it’s left entirely unexplored. There’s lip service to the idea, but it feels hollow.
The flirting with ideas is taken to such lengths that one can’t stop asking more questions. Why, for example, are the only survivors so plain and dull? Why can’t we explore the effects of a millennia of life?
These questions mainly arise because all these characters are so terribly shallow. Theron plays a Methuselah-styled immortal warrior who is insinuated to have embroiled themselves in every major event of human history like a violent Forrest Gump, yet it’s hard to tell her apart from any other Theron action role of the past decade. Not that she’s bad in the part, she’s clearly the only one around who paid attention during the fighting lessons, it’s just that she’s got nothing to work with. Kiki Layne plays the newcomer, a daughter of a marine who fell in combat and is searching for a way to find purpose in that death, who is given nothing else to do except ask questions and look put off. She’s supposed to be our entryway into this world, but the script forgets that just asking questions and getting vague responses makes for dire entertainment.
The inclusion of two queer characters, played by Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli, stands out as potentially a fun and interesting change from the norm, but their parts are entirely defined by their sexuality and the film wastes no time in sidelining them entirely. They do share an embarrassingly clunky ode of love to each other which is delivered with a ton of heart and bravado, yet it’s shoehorned into the film like it was a box to check. Surely diversity isn’t this hard to get right, is it?
Thank goodness for Harry Melling who makes for a great villain in a scenery chewing part as pharma frat boy Merrick, even if the role could be replaced by a giant moustache twirling in the wind. It’s just a shame that the great Chiwetel Ejiofor is miserably wasted as a CIA agent with a heart of gold, who goes from confusing to laughably stupid the further the film goes. Matthias Schoenaerts does his best as the hangdog Booker, but even his scruffy charisma can’t save the part from the clunky dialog he’s forced to sell.
The script forgets that just asking questions and getting vague responses makes for dire entertainment.
If only the action was any good, that alone could salvage a lot. But alas, no such luck here. Apart from one fun set piece involving vodka, two women, and a cargo plane there is very little inventiveness or excitement to be found. For a two hour film almost nothing of note takes place, and what does is lost in poorly choreographed, confusingly filmed mayhem that feels weightless and inconsequential. Not helping is the horrendous score which undermines every action scene with lazy pop-songs commenting on what’s happening on screen.
Some wonderful gore effects do make an impact as the film takes every opportunity to showcase the healing effect in full detail. But apart from some broken bones and one particularly great gut shot the big picture still feels surprisingly tame. Early on Theron jokes that jumping out of a plane wouldn’t kill anyone of their crew and for a split second one imagines a more daring film, one that would allow its heroes to put themselves back together like Goldie Hawn in DEATH BECOMES HER. Sadly, nothing even remotely as thrilling happens.
That’s THE OLD GUARD in a nutshell. It’s packed with ideas and traces of an interesting, groundbreaking new IP that potentially could be great, but the execution is a damp squid incapable of mustering any life out of the meandering finished product. The directing by Gina Prince-Bythewood is capable and even classy in places (that cargo plane!), but nothing fully clicks enough to warrant a revisit at any point. But even so there’s still talent and that much talked about potential in everything she does. Maybe next time the script will be worth the talent behind and in front of the camera.
And all this is fine. Men have been directing lame action movies for decades now, each returning to the grind dud after dud without any signs of slowing down. If equality on this front means we’ve got to sit through some stinkers to get to the good stuff, I say bring them on. I sat through most of Steven Seagal’s filmography, I’m not scared of anything.