“A passable piece of mythology that feigns to be a culturally relevant action flick.”
By Elias Savada.
A funny thing happened on the way to this movie.
It took a second viewing of The Old Guard to figure out it is an ok action flick. On a high-definition 60-inch television, I couldn’t ride the intimate save-the-world-again vibe generated by director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the force behind Love & Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights (2014), two small, sensitive films about the challenges in life (while her new film is all about the challenges of eternal life). The image suffered from Soap Opera Effect, an off-putting veneer that made the film look like a live broadcast. I had to confirm this wasn’t intentional; thankfully, it was a calibration issue on my end. A repeat showing on my large computer monitor offered the proper film mode, although I suspect this made-in-the-U.K. feature was still shot was a digital camera. Ah, the magic of the movies.
For the director, now graduating, after a too-long apprenticeship, to a big budget affair, and one starring megastar Charlize Theron, it’s a grand promotion, and the results are mixed. Overly pulpy is Greg Rucka’s screenplay, an adaptation of his 2017 graphic novel series (illustrated by Leandro Fernández), and the singular, vengeful storyline against a bad apple and, ultimately, Big Pharma. Otherwise, it’s a passable piece of mythology that feigns to be a culturally relevant action flick.
With people watching more and more Netflix, this should rush to the top of most viewer’s watch list, even if it is only a modestly successful franchise builder about a small group of immortal humans – to which it points itself confidently just before the end credits roll.
Charlize Theron adds another fierce character in her fearless thespian repertoire. There’s a reason she won a Best Actress Oscar for Monster (2003) and has earned countless other nominations and awards for other roles. She’s very focused and intense here, leading a rag-tag group of mercenaries as they hop continents and centuries trying to offer up “pass it forward” solutions to the world’s ills.
The quartet is basically a Super Secret Seal Team (or perhaps the makings of a foreign football team) who don’t die. They also heal super fast (think Wolverine) and don’t age from the time they enter the undying realm. The film opens in dusty Marrakesh, where you meet baklava-loving Andy (Theron, from South Africa) and Booker (Belgian hunk Matthias Schoenaerts), reconnoitering after a year’s absence for their latest assignment, courtesy of ex-CIA operative James Copley (Chiewetel Ejiofor, representing Britain). A child hostage situation in South Sudan. Despite reservations from her that “We don’t do repeats,” it’s off to the races, accompanied by longtime companions Joe (Marwan Kenzari, with Tunisian-Dutch affiliations) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli, for Italy). Turns out Andy (née Andromache the Scythian) has aged quite well for a 6,000-or-so-year-old warrior, so she should have believed her centuries-old instincts. It’s an ambush.
First meanwhile, in Afghanistan a compassionate, dedicated U.S. Marine corporal, Nile Freeman (If Beale Street Could Talk‘s KiKi Layne), gets her throat slashed by a terrorist and gets inducted into the immortal hall of fame, who collectively share a introductory “force awakening” moment. Andy takes a 9,000 km side trip from Morocco to Camp Leatherneck in unexplainable likety-split time – these superheroes cannot fly, except on airplanes – to pick up her new ward. Andy showed no evidence of exhaustion when she introduces herself. It’s a fun meet-and-greet.
The chemistry between Theron and Layne is quite good from a learned teacher-mortified student perspective. Since they don’t die, using a bullet through the brain or breaking bones as learning tools can be a rather comical educational experience. Their relationship showcases a few of the rare bits of tongue in cheek humor sprinkle throughout, “Can you please not do that again?” after Nile stabs Andy.
Backstories are too few, but they would pad an already too long two-hour-plus film. These add quick snippets about a few of the immortals who have actually lived past their prime. Far Eastern martial arts battles, witch trials, a long visit to Davy Jones’ Locker all take up filler time for the cast.
Prior to Niles becoming the new (and hesitant) recruit, Booker was the last addition to the troupe, arriving in 1812. “Yeah, I died fighting with Napoleon.” Nicky and Joel have been lovers since the Crusades. Later in the film, when under duress and ridicule, Joel gets his gay love movement moment, proclaiming to his captors that Nicky “is more to me than you can dream. He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness and the warmth when I shiver in cold. And his kiss still thrills me, even after a millennium. His heart overflows with a kindness of which this world is not worthy of. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my boyfriend. He is all, and he is more.” Apparently the dialogue came from the original graphic novel and Rucka stated it had to be in the film.
The hunt for Copley, who seems to relish the group’s ancestry (a Civil War photograph of them sits on his office desk), consumes the group, with Booker showing exasperation at the spy’s lack of a Google trail. There is a reason the group’s in the dark about his whereabouts. I won’t spoil that for you.
Second meanwhile, in London is Copley’s ruthless, unethical boss, Steven Merrick (Harry Melling, recognizable to Harry Potter movie fans as Dudley Dursley, and now even more obnoxious), the damn-the-torpedoes-and-anyone-else borderline sadistic CEO of his eponymous London-based big pharma company. Copley has provided him proof of their powers and he smells a fortune in his future.
Prince-Bythewood offers several poignant humanitarian moments between the adequately choreographed fight sequences. One involves a store clerk in a French pharmacy, giving aid and comfort to a stranger. “Tomorrow, you help someone when they fall.”
Sometimes the cinematography (hand-held faux-documentary vs. Steadicam) was distracting. Other times, it made a point, especially when Andy and Nile discuss immortality. It seems that a jittery camera focuses on Andy is fragility, while Niles’ image is rock solid.
Ultimately, The Old Guard works best as a recruiting film for an exclusive set of comic book heroes.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).