Violent but creative, “The Old Guard” stars Charlize Theron as Andy, the tough leader of an army of four immortal warriors who discovered at various historical epochs they couldn’t die and have been fighting injustice together until our present day. This superhero story is an interesting departure, with historical aspects and even some character development and introspection, but it also spends lots of time kicking, punching, shooting and slashing.
This made-for-Netflix action flick reminded me of the one they made with Chris Hemsworth, “Extraction,” in that the presence of a huge star somehow heightened the cheap look of it; we’re used to seeing these luminaries bleeding in front of more on-screen cash expenditures. While Theron pulled off some impressive fight scenes, I think most of the budget was spent on her jeans. That’s not an insult — they were a highlight, especially given the silly script.
Based on a comic book by Greg Rucka, “The Old Guard” has an interesting premise and a good cast. Matthias Schoenaerts plays a man who didn’t die in the Napoleonic Wars; haunted by the inevitable deaths of his family as he lived on, this immortality is a burden he wants to be rid of. A refreshingly unknown pair of actors, Lucas Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari, play lovers who discovered their immortality and one another during the Crusades. Their relationship, which is also an unusual and refreshing element to the story, makes their longevity more appealing because they are lucky enough to have one another.
In addition to a great cast, “The Old Guard” boasts the first African American woman to ever direct a big Hollywood comic book adaptation, Gina Prince-Bythewood. In addition to its female lead, all the superheroes are possessed of an unusually high level of introspection not often found in the genre. Indeed, while the characters’ power technically makes them superheroes or at least supernatural, this film hardly fits into the genre when we think of the earth-shatteringly popular Marvel cinematic universe.
This film is more serious than those, and no one flies, wears tights or cracks the jokes that increasingly jazz up our current superhero landscape. After a rescue attempt in Sudan goes awry, the team realizes they are being hunted, and while they have no need to fear death, capture and captivity are even higher stakes for them. And, after hundreds of years as a team of four, a young female Marine named Nile is baffled to discover her sudden immortality and must be found and brought into the fold.
Soon, the immortals must fight to save themselves from a nefarious scientist who wants to use them to end diseases, save lives and make cash, and the plot development in the current times is not as satisfying as the background. I guess a deeper foundation from a series of comic books gave more to draw on than the somewhat slapdash Big Pharma conflict narrative, and there was a sense of rushing to set up the next film. The dastardly pharmaceutical villain is played by Harry Melick, who played Dudley Dursley in all the Harry Potter films, and has re-emerged as a good character actor, notably as the armless, legless performer in a haunting chapter of the Coen Brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” His role in this boasted the most head-scratching leaps in logic, but it was still fun to see him.
Theron is an impressive fighter and a brittle, disillusioned leader, and the group of five immortals had multiple romantic and platonic dynamics going that I really enjoyed, which is good since it seems we will be seeing more of them together. The soundtrack, however, a series of aggressively current pop songs, was distractingly horrendous.
At least it distracted from the script; you could almost hear the plot gears turning trying to lay out the second half of the film, and then it lobbed some serious clunkers. Is it really likely an immortal woman, who had lived through thousands of years of loss, wisdom and experience, who had fought in every war and sought justice for countless unnamed suffering people, would turn to her protégé in a moment of reflection before the fight of her life and utter the phrase, “Go big or go home?”
You could certainly do worse with an action movie, and the cast, with its mix of known and new stars, was a draw. It was fun to learn more about how their world works and maybe in the sequel the people who are paid to write it will use that backspace button more often. “The Old Guard” was uneven but exciting, with a premise novel enough to earn a watch.
“The Old Guard” is streaming on Netflix.
New This Week:
“Tesla”: Another movie about Nikola Tesla, this one starring Ethan Hawke and Kyle Mclaughlin and boasting good reviews from the Sundance Film Festival. Video on Demand.
“An American Pickle”: Seth Rogan plays two roles in this movie about a man who falls into a pickle barrel and gets preserved in brine for a century, waking up in contemporary Brooklyn. HBO Max.
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