The Old Guard is a new Netflix action film from director Gina Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Greg Ruckna, and is based on the graphic novel series by Ruckna, which he co-created with Leandro Fernandez. It stars Charlize Theron as Andy, an immortal warrior who leads a group of undying soldiers as they attempt to set right the injustices of the world over the course of human history. After being double-crossed by a CIA operative named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who set them up for an ambush disguised as a rescue mission, Andy and her compatriots receive a vision of a new immortal – one who does not yet know that she is one of them – and Andy sets out to go and recruit her to the team while the rest of them hide and try to figure out their next move against Copley. At the same time, on a mission in Afghanistan, a young U.S. Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne) is killed while attempting to find and arrest a known domestic and international terrorist. After she wakes up to discover that her throat (which was sliced open during the fight) has completely healed, showing no signs of damage, Nile is left to wonder both how and why she seems to have this power most of her fellow soldiers do not possess. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much time to do so before Andy arrives, and the more she learns about the team and her powers, the less she seems inclined to stay. Meanwhile, the growing threat of big pharma group Merrick (who wants to capture and experiment on the team in order to acquire their abilities) draws ever-closer, and time for Andy and her team is running out. This movie also stars Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Harry Melling.
Netflix tends to have three pretty distinct flavors to their original movies that they don’t acquire after a major festival (or plan to make with well-known filmmakers like Cuarón or Scorsese): those that work, those that don’t, and those that sort of do but can’t quite get where it seems like they want to go. The Old Guard falls squarely in that third camp. It’s not that the film is so much bad as it feels somewhat underwhelming, as if a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor in hopes of setting up a sequel they have no guarantee of making (although, since it’s Netflix, the chances of a franchise not happening are slim to none). Many of the most interesting elements in the film are those that surround the narrative but don’t directly impact it from a narrative standpoint, like a character from Andy’s past that she feels some guilt over but ultimately had to move on from. It’s cool seeing the whole team in action (and this movie does have some seriously kick-ass action sequences), but what ultimately drives stories like this are the characters’ personal struggles, and the personal struggles of the main characters in this movie (apart from Nile grappling with this new element of her life) seem to be fringe elements the film isn’t really all that interested in exploring. That’s not to say it doesn’t do any exploring of those elements, but again, what exploration takes place only seems to be there mainly to set up a sequel, while the character growth from that exploration is on the B-list for priorities. All of this has the effect of making The Old Guard feel more like a two-hour miniseries premiere than a movie, and perhaps this narrative would be better explored that way.
This wouldn’t be a problem, however, if the action sequences in the film were a little more frequent and a little more involved. Don’t get me wrong, the action in this film is really great when it’s going on, and there’s one particular fight on a plane that’s aces for its brutality and wit, but as for the rest of them, most don’t feel quite long enough or unedited enough to really make an impact. What’s there is cool, but it’s not exactly surprising, or new, or even particularly different from a lot of other action sequences in other movies (apart from one where Charlize Theron uses a curved axe and goes to town). The final sequence, in fact, contains one action moment so hyper-edited, I was briefly tricked into thinking I was watching Taken 3 again, and that is not pleasant sensation. For the average Netflix movie, what’s there would do, but for a Theron-led, post-Mad Max, post-John Wick action thriller, I was left wanting a little more. Also, the third act location setting is…well, it’s just a boring place for that sequence to be.
And this brings us to the biggest issue I have with The Old Guard, apart from the franchise thirst: the villain. At first, Harry Melling’s Merrick seems like an interesting villain, given that he wants to use the immortals’ powers to cure disease and whatnot, but all of that is undercut by him being yet another villain that only wants to do those things so he can reap the financial profits, and he has absolutely no backstory or development in the film to show what made him this way. Don’t get me wrong, looking at who sits in power in this country today means Merrick is far from an unrealistic villain, but movies don’t require that villains be realistic – they require they be interesting, and Merrick is as uninteresting of a villain as we’ve seen in most of Netflix’s other, lesser action material.
It’s not all bad, though. There’s a lot to like about The Old Guard, which is why, despite my myriad of issues with it, I still had a fairly good time watching it. Like I said, the action (while lacking some length) is pretty great while it’s happening, and a lot of it happens in international locations that provide a good amount of variety to how these sequences get played out, as well as a lot of variety in terms of how the movie looks. Sure, the third act location is pretty boring as a wash of greys and whites where some color could have definitely helped the look of the movie, but many of the locations before that are wonderful to see in a mainstream action film. There’s also a wonderfully diverse cast of characters that come from all walks of life, including two LGBT characters whose sexualities aren’t the point of their being included, and whose romance is not shuffled off to the side in favor of appealing to the masses that would watch the film (looking at you, Disney). The best things about The Old Guard, though, are Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne.
Charlize Theron as an action star is hardly surprising; she stole the show in Mad Max: Fury Road, she kicked copious amounts of ass in Atomic Blonde, and in this movie, she once again leads with a fierceness and commanding physicality unrivaled by most other female action heroines. When it comes to pure action, almost no one can match or do it better or more convincingly than she does. What is somewhat surprising is how good Kiki Layne is in this film. Only having known her from Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature, If Beale Street Could Talk, I admittedly hadn’t seen her in anything else, but still, her commanding range in this film is something to be commended. You can see the woundedness behind her eyes quite easily when Theron is describing to her all she’ll have to sacrifice from her old life in order to be part of this immortal team, and while her character doesn’t get a ton of moments to be vulnerable, Layne brings enough vulnerability out of her performance for us to know she can do a lot more with this character than the film lets on. The others are good, too, but these two women both drive and steal the show as far as performances are concerned.
The Old Guard is not a bad movie by any stretch; it features solid performances, boasts some kick-ass sequences, and the concept is pretty fun to follow on the whole. But at the end of the day, I was still left wanting a little more, both from its action sequences, and its world-building. A lot of teasing at larger potential is great, but not if most of that teasing is based in developing a franchise over developing character, and the lack of a more interesting villain to contend with means that the focus can’t be pulled away from that lack of follow-through. Despite my overall enjoyment of it, I was left a little underwhelmed by this one. Still, Theron and Layne are a dynamite pair, and even though I wish they had explored more of the world in this movie, I’m still interested to see where the story goes.
I’m giving “The Old Guard” a 7.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.