The Old Guard
About halfway through The Old Guard, Netflix’s latest attempt at a franchise, I came to a grim realization. This is based on a comic book, isn’t it?
All the tell-tale signs are there. Mainly that it’s all set up and callbacks 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 simply boring.
Charlize Theron plays Andy (or Andromache of Stygia), leader of a group of immortals who’ve lived, fought, and loved on this planet for centuries. That immortality is basically a Wolverine-style healing factor, which brings them back from even the most gruesome deaths.
But, for some reason or another, one day this immortality might end, and their wounds will no longer heal. At that point, death will finally arrive for good. Until that time comes, the quintet push on in a world that spins faster out of control each passing year.
When a routine gig goes sour, the group must go on a roaring rampage of revenge to wipe out any traces of their existence. Despite that, apparently, none of them are that hard to track. There’s even a full monologue about how all it takes is one long look at history books.
At the same time, a young soldier dies in Afghanistan, only to be reincarnated as a newly-minted immortal. One whom Andy and her team have to find, because reasons.
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 anything to achieve his dastardly goals.
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. Exposition in place of drama or intrigue. We hear a lot about interesting histories and moral conflicts, 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.
For example, Andy’s past life with her companion Quynh (the always dazzling Veronica Ngo) could be a film in its own right. There’s potential for an introspective action film about the struggle of not knowing which is the right side of history. Especially when time itself is an irrelevant concept. What happens when someone you’ve loved for centuries decides to go on their own? Every element promises so much, but the trite script refuses to brave beyond tired cliche.
The shallow script does the talented no favors.
Theron plays a Methuselah-styled immortal warrior who has embroiled themselves in every major event of human history like a violent Forrest Gump. In theory, that’s a fantastic character to lead the story. Yet it’s hard to tell Andy apart from any of the dozen similar parts that Theron has under her belt. The directing, script, and even performance all hammer the same tired points without fail. You could replace Andy with Atomic Blonde and nothing would change.
Theron is never bad in the part, though. She’s clearly the only one in the cast who paid attention during the fighting lessons. But she has nothing to work with.
Kiki Layne plays the newcomer, a daughter of a marine who fell in combat, who now searches for purpose in that death. On paper, it’s another great part. But Layne has nothing to do in the film but ask questions and look put off. She’s supposed to be our entryway into this world, but the script mistakes exposition for character growth, eventually sidelining her entirely.
The inclusion of two queer characters, played by with charm and intense humanity by Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli, stands out as potentially a fun and interesting change from the norm. But the script defines them entirely by their sexuality, and the film wastes no time in placing them in jeopardy. LGBTQ characters rarely last long in action films, and while The Old Guard doesn’t fumble the ball as bad as others, it still relegates its only interesting characters as cannon fodder. Surely diversity isn’t this hard to get right, is it?
If only the action was any good, that alone could salvage things.
But, alas, no such luck here. Apart from one fun set piece involving vodka, two women, and a cargo plane, there is little inventiveness or excitement in the entire picture. It doesn’t help that the horrendous score undermines every action scene with lazy pop songs, some of which comment directly 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 picture feels surprisingly tame.
Early on Theron jokes that jumping out of a plane wouldn’t kill any of their crew and, for a split second, one imagines a more daring, funnier 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 as that happens.
That’s The Old Guard in a nutshell. A series of what-ifs, each better than what we actually get.
And yes, you review the film that’s out. Not the one you’d want to exist. To that end, it’s only thanks to spirited directing by Gina Prince-Bythewood that even portions of The Old Guard work. They don’t work well, but they do work. And that’s not nothing.
But even if this is a misfire, and it is, there’s still talent and that much-talked-about potential somewhere in it. Maybe next time the script will be worth the talent both behind and in front of the camera.
After all, men have directed lame and incomprehensible action movies for decades now. Each one getting another go despite making 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.