The Old Guard Review
From its first moments, Netflix’s The Old Guard establishes itself as a serious, gritty action film. Although deeply rooted in sci-fi, fantasy and even the superhero genre given its source material of graphic novels, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s first action feature wants you to take it seriously and not think of the thematical and narrative connections to similar, more light-hearted films.
Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron), or Andy to friends, is a centuries old, seemingly immortal warrior who leads a group of other immortals, who now travel around the world as mercenaries for hire but are also keen on helping humanity. Andy has grown tired of the constant battles and violence, but when they discover a new recruit, Nile (KiKi Layne) things get interesting, especially as an evil billionaire is after their powers in the name of science.
The Old Guard has a lot going for itself; the cast is diverse and impeccable and it’s always a delight to see Theron kick butt. The CGI is neat, Prince-Bythewood doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed and the action feels dynamic, if a little too fast and messily edited. The problem at the very heart of the film is that the stakes never feel high enough for an action film. It’s established early on that these guys can’t die; we witness our group violently gunned down by a dozen machine gun-wielding baddies, just for Andy and co. to spit the bullets back out and get right into the ass-kickery, but all of the film’s several, bone-crunching action sequences feel pointless because we know our guys and gals will escape in the end.
Theron, while great and engaging, is repeating much of what she did in Atomic Blonde, without David Leitch’s hyper-cool style to help distract from the fairly traditional narrative. Layne, who showed great promise in Barry Jenkins’ lyrical If Beale Street Could Talk, shows off her impressive acting range here, but her performance is weighed down by Prince-Bythewood and writer Greg Rucka’s inability to choose what kind of a story they want to tell. The film lacks perspective and point of view; is this the story of an old, tired warrior passing the torch or the birth of another powerful woman, who has to leave behind her old life? The film never fuses these two stories together in a satisfying manner.
One of its best sequences happens fairly early on in a plane and sees Andy and Nile engage in a good, old-fashioned brawl. It’s a fun, sly and adrenaline-heavy sequence and promises much for the film, but it constantly feels excessive and riddled with awkward dialogue and weird filmmaking choices. A film like this can allow for maybe one music cue – full on pop song, that is – before succumbing to full ridiculousness, but somehow, we get at least four of them here and each time they reduce The Old Guard into a bad music video for the duration of the song, cheapening the film.
The violence is constantly brutal and gory at least, but it can’t save this from being a thematical mess and containing several inconsistencies, the biggest being that despite being able to heal from all wounds, the characters can and will feel pain but somehow aren’t constantly screaming in pain while being gunned down or falling from buildings. The film also teases another immortal, Quyenh, who suffered a horrifying fate, fully observed in a flashback. Quyenh is played here by Van Veronica Ngo, who seems to be excelling in small but memorable roles, such as Hanoi Hannah in Da 5 Bloods and Paige Tico in The Last Jedi.
The Old Guard suffers from the same problem as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, a film so designed to start a franchise, it can’t quite find its own footing and identity outside of that. This is a film that might be the start of an interesting franchise, but barely works on its own.
The Old Guard will stream on Netflix July 10.
The Old Guard (2020)
Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood | Cast: Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Matthias Schoenaerts | Writers: Greg Rucka (comic book), Greg Rucka (screenplay), Leandro Fernandez (comic book co-creator)