This year has been a weird one for film – and that’s putting it mildly. Movie theaters in the United States have been widely closed since March, and I had only seen 10 new releases from 2020 before “The Old Guard.” A new Charlize Theron-led action flick would seem like a respite from the nightmare scenario film fans have been living in during this global pandemic.
“The Old Guard” is another (!!!) Netflix Original based on the graphic novel of the same name from Greg Rucka. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees”), the quasi-superhero film is rooted in an interesting concept: a small group of mercenaries, led by Theron’s Andromache of Scythia (or Andy for short), are trying to better the world. The catch? They’re all immortal and have been alive for hundreds of years, appearing at history’s greatest moments and doing their part to keep humanity moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, this premise is presented in the most bland, convoluted and cliché manner possible.
The lack of inspiration is immediately apparent on all fronts. The film opens with a plain title card, narration from Andy, and out-of-place pop music. At times it feels like a riff on the “Bourne” series, hopping from location to location and taking peeks at covert military operations. But every establishing sequence here is sterile and set to electronic music that completely clashes with the African or Middle Eastern landscapes. Establishing an urban area feels like a transitional sequence on an MTV reality show, establishing ones on the countryside feel like a National Geographic special. The title cards revealing each locale are blocky and oftentimes redundant.
Fifteen minutes in and all of these little details might seem trivial, but they serve as a microcosm of the overall approach to filmmaking on display throughout the rest of the runtime. Theron is a badass, and we all have known that for years, but watching her do her own stunts and kick some ass can only carry a film so far. She did it in 2017’s “Atomic Blonde,” a hyperstyilzed film positioned as a female version of “John Wick.” It wasn’t great by any stretch and the characters were forgettable, but the filmmaking at least had some style to make up for the convoluted story. In “The Old Guard,” Greg Rucka’s first live-action feature screenplay is passable at best, never fleshing out the characters well enough and failing to deliver on any of the film’s primary questions, like how these characters gained their immortality or why they can lose it.
KiKi Layne plays a U.S. Marine Corps infantry woman who is killed on a mission in Afghanistan. In 2018, Layne starred in “If Beale Street Could Talk” and delivered one of the year’s best performances, but here, she looks, sounds and feels completely out of her element. It was a pleasant surprise to see her finally pop up in another film two years later, but she almost felt like a different actor, with all of her power and raw emotion nowhere to be found.
Layne’s character, Nile Freeman, is the latest to join the crew – not through any choice of her own, though. Her death triggers the realization of her immortality and sends visions to those who already have the power. So, Andy hops over to Afghanistan, walks into a U.S. Marine camp, assaults some of Nile’s fellow soldiers and abducts the new recruit after knocking her out – and makes a quip to her unconscious body to top it all off.
Nile is understandably upset when she wakes, which leads to some almost Deadpool-like comedy that focuses on their ability to regenerate and come back from the dead. These attempts at humor clash with the film’s overall tone, which is fittingly dramatic for a story about tortured souls who watch everyone around them die, unable to understand why this has happened to them. The rest of the immortal squad consists of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). The latter two met during the Crusades, with Joe living in the Middle East and Nicky serving the European conquerors. Before discovering their powers, the duo clashed in battle and ended up killing each other, only to return to life and… fall in love? Placing a relationship within the confines of “The Old Guard” could make for a fun dynamic, and a queer relationship in an action film is an admirable decision, but it’s not ever explained as to how the two went from killing each other to being in love. The relationship, like the rest of the characters in the film, is one-dimensional.
Another inexplicable decision is the choice to have the immortal characters use swords and other ancient hand-held weapons against groups of special operatives armed with machine guns. I understand they were born and experienced in war prior to the invention of guns, but what’s the benefit of continuing to use those dated weapons? The immortals can survive anything and their wounds regenerate, but they still experience pain and are never said to have superhuman speed, agility or strength. I guess it looks cool, though.
Maybe you can get over some of the goofy logic, but even the heralded action sequences aren’t anything too special. The stunt work itself is strong across the board, anchored by Theron, who’s probably more experienced than any action star in the industry not named Keanu or Cruise. She looks convincing as ever and elevates all the performers around her. However, all of the formal elements in “The Old Guard” are lackluster. There is no flair or intention, with the camera simply jumping from character to character. Despite it being a globetrotting story, the production design and costumes are dull, and there was never a sequence where I thought “Wow, how did they get that shot?” or “That is really well-composed, the camera movement is engaging and the use of color is clever.” It’s all just doing the bare minimum.
I didn’t have many expectations for “The Old Guard,” but I was more than game for a fun, concept-driven action film with a cast of characters that is far from typical. Unfortunately, it all just feels so uninspired, with a camera plopped down and cast members doing their best with a script that jams in every cliché line of dialogue you can imagine.
You can make a messy movie, but as long as it’s exciting and stylish, you can get away with it. You can’t make one this messy and dull and expect to get by. I mean, this movie closes with the exact same title card it used during the opening, which comes before the film’s final scene – a cliffhanger clearly setting up a sequel – even goes down.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been writing for Inside the Film Room since August 2019; he was named Senior Writer in January 2020. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."