The Old Guard (R21)
Starring Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
The Old Guard is an action movie from Netflix about existential angst as seen through the eyes of a group of immortals warriors.
These invincible fighters, led by Charlize Theron’s Andromache the Scythian or Andy (easier to pronounce; less likely to be misspelt), are tired of living forever. Freddie Mercury once asked, “Who wants to live forever?” Well, not melancholy Andy (Theron, in another icy and steely performance) and her pals with super-regenerative powers.
You can’t really blame them feeling burned out — they’ve been working their asses off as soldiers of fortune fighting evil, millennia after millennia. For that, we thank you for your service.
They should’ve given this immortal business a little thought and made a mid-career switch. Given how long they’ve been around, they should’ve amassed enough wealth and knowledge to run a Justice League-type of superhero consortium and let someone else do the heavy-lifting for a change. Surely, there are alternate ways of saving humanity which don’t involve squeezing a trigger.
Maybe Andy is an adrenaline junkie. Or maybe she isn’t cut out for management. Who knows? But I’m digressing here. That’s a different The Old Guard. I have in mind; this one is based on Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s 2017 graphic novel (never read it).
The plot: Andy and her squad — Booker (Red Sparrow’s Matthias Schoenaerts), a Napoleonic soldier, and a couple Joe (Aladdin’s Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), former adversaries who hooked up during the Crusades — are hired by ex-CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to defuse a hostage situation in Africa.
The mission goes sideways: they're led into an ambush. Copley has sold them out! Turns out he’s merely the go-between for Merrick, a Big Pharma mogul (Harry Melling) who wants to extract the immortals’ DNA and make it into the next big product.
Before the gang makes their next move on Merrick, Andy takes a solo detour to recruit Nile (KiKi Layne), a US Marine who doesn’t know she’s an immortal yet. This means one or two things: they’re either expanding or someone’s leaving the unit. I would not dream of giving away such a plot detail.
In theory, The Old Guard is like a cross between Logan and Highlander — the bonkers 1986 movie starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery as sword-wielding immortals battling for something called The Prize against a Queen soundtrack. It should be a lot of trashy fun.
But the mash-up seems to be missing one key ingredient: fun. A few years ago, Theron was in this Will Smith-fronted superhero flick Hancock where she plays an immortal. That was a lark, kinda. The Old Guard…. er, not as much.
At the beginning of the movie, after getting mowed down by a hail of bullets, Andy intones in a weary voice-over, “I’ve been here before over and over again, and each time the same question: Is that it? Will this time be the one? And each time the same answer: And I’m just so tired.” Oh boy.
The rest of The Old Guard is just as haggard as her voiceover. The onscreen brawls and gunfights are well handled but they aren’t enough to keep the buzz going. It’s no Atomic Blonde, still the gold standard to beat in the ‘Charlize Theron Action Movie’ category.
What director Gina Prince-Bythewood — a filmmaker known for telling personal stories, not popcorn crowd-pleasers — does well is keeping the human drama grounded in the fantastic realm.
That said, the characters’ tormented back stories are probably better served in a serialised TV format than a feature; here, they just slow down the pace. For a start, Joe and Nicky’s Brokeback Mountain relationship — a rare sight in mainstream action movies — deserves its own spin-off. It’s also hinted that Andy has a ‘complicated’ past with another immortal (Van Veronica Go), but I’m just speculating.
Elsewhere, the movie can use a formidable villain to spice things up. The trailer fooled us for a while into thinking that Ejiofor is the meanie. But he’s just a middle man answering to Merrick, a third-rate greedy bastard. Oh, wait, he has a black ops guy on his payroll, but he’s just another nameless henchman with minimal dialogue and zero personality.
I’m sorry but I have to bring up Highlander again, but I was hoping The Old Guard would be the new Highlander. I was wrong. Highlander is an arena rock concert. The Old Guard, on the other hand, is a stay-home gig.