Review: Netflix action flick 'The Old Guard' fails to learn new tricks
Courtesy of Netflix
Over the past decade with turns in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” watching Charlize Theron kick major ass has been a giddy sight. The actress has the physical stamina and screen presence to hold down even the shoddiest of action cinema (looking at you “Aeon Flux”). But it speaks to the writing and pacing of her new film “The Old Guard” - when all she does is pummel bad guys and squish their skulls under the soles of her shoe - that it still ends up so dreary.
Adapted from the comic series written by Greg Rucka - he also wrote the screenplay - “The Old Guard” takes a somewhat familiar premise - a group of supernatural beings, in this case immortals - and tries to upend action movie conventions. This group of mercenaries, you see, moves through time, dating back centuries seeking a greater good, fighting for what’s right. But each time they head into battle and are dealt fatal injuries, their bodies magically heal like a group of disbanded X-Men.
It doesn’t matter how brutal the blow: bullet to the head, firing squad, or vicious stabbing, this squad always lands back on their feet, ready to thwart anyone stupid enough to stand in their way. Sure this has its perks: they can keep fighting and defeating evil for all of entirety, but are left to live in solitude, forced to watch their family and friends decay in front of them.
The leader of this A-Team is Andromache of Scythia or, in less formal terms, Andy. Inhabited by Theron, Andy isn’t afraid to throw hands, lay down her life for the team, and knock some brains out while she’s at it. After years of guilt and torment, Andy is all but ready to throw in the towel when a vision of young Nile (Kiki Layne “If Beale Street Could Talk”) blimps on her radar, a marine who inadvertently discovers she, too, is immortal.
Like clockwork, Andy recruits Nile for the team: soldering up alongside Booker (Matthias Schoenarts); and lovers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinella) whom are all equipped and tailored with their own tragic backstories, which the audience can try and piece together through horrible photoshopped pictures sitting on their mantles.
The idea of immortal warriors heading into battle to stop a goofy enemy isn’t a new narrative tactic, and though the use of Nile and the inspired casting of Layne is welcome, “The Old Guard” doesn’t delve so much into who these characters are and why we’re supposed to root for them. You would never truly understand that Joe and Nicky were head over heels in love with each other if not for an awkward scene spliced in the middle of an action sequence. That being said, let's hope this can pave the way for more LGBTQ representation in action cinema.
Theron can certainly throw and land a punch as much as anyone, but eventually “The Old Guard” stumbles and fails to learn new tricks. Throughout the film, the characters often play with the notion of death (in one instance, a character tries to run away and instead of chasing after them, the other puts a bullet in their head). This becomes a recurring theme that wears out quickly, eventually taking on a weird hybrid of “Groundhog Day” meets “Edge of Tomorrow.”
Not helping the film's case is Harry Melling who plays a sniveling CEO of an experimental pharmaceutical company who sees the immortal team as a scientific breakthrough, and obviously wants them captured alive so he can run tests on them. Que all the disposable henchmen sent to capture the immortals and the endless fight montages that ensue!
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood deserves credit for giving the action scenes a flair of personality which, considering her background in mostly adult driven-dramas, is a noteworthy accolade. The best sequence comes when Nile and Andy bare knuckle brawl on an airplane heading to Paris: it’s expertly staged and gives “John Wick” a run for its money.
Yet unlike “John Wick” where the action never stops, “The Old Guard” dials down and tries to deliver a few somber and rousing moments, except fails to elicit any real character drama the comic series is known for. Even the action begins to show its age as the film progresses, and is scored to annoyingly dull pop music, which only undermines the movie further.
But the biggest problem “The Old Guard” has is an issue most adaptations seem to struggle with, be it the disastrous “Artemis Fowl” or “Eragon,” in that it’s all set-up for a franchise. Instead of allowing the work to stand on its own and be judged for what it is, the filmmakers have already made up their minds on what audiences will think of it. I hope we go back to a time where a singular movie can exist without the pressure of maintaining future installments, because if history is any indication, like the main characters in the film, this franchise won’t know when to die.
THE OLD GUARD debuts on NETFLIX July 10th