Charlize Theron is arguably the biggest female bad-ass in Hollywood and it’s always a delight to see her slicing through henchmen in the likes of Atomic Blonde, Aeon Flux and Mad Max: Fury Road. Refreshingly, The Old Guard is the Theron we know with an interesting, fantastical twist. The question is however, does this Netflix-backed action romp live up to Theron’s action packed filmography? Well the short answer is… not quite. If you’re going into this with sky-high expectations then I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointing couple of hours. But if you take it for what it is (a half-decent action flick to watch on a weeknight over takeaway) then you’ll no doubt have a good time. You see, the thing about most Netflix movies is that they are not trying to be revolutionary, ‘Oscar-worthy’ masterpieces and everyone knows that. They’re generally just middle-of-the-road fun that would otherwise be sidelined by a money oriented studio but, luckily, The Old Guard is just about self-aware enough to get away with it.
Helmed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film follows the trials of a team of immortal mercenaries as they take on seemingly impossible missions. It turns out being death-proof is a handy skill when it comes to correcting the world’s evils and though they are as vulnerable to bullets, pain and death as anyone else, for our immortal demigods, death is only a temporary impasse. Give it a few minutes and they are back to kicking ass and when Theron, as Millenia-old warrior – Andromache of Scythia, is slicing through bad-guy-flesh with an ancient, (and awesome-looking) axe, it’s hard not to like. The action sequences are where the film really starts to find it’s stride and are undoubtedly the highlights of it’s two hour run-time. Though Andromache (or Andy as she’s known in the film) is the most lethal of the team, the supporting characters are no amateurs and it’s pleasing to see some lesser-known actors relishing their action choreography alongside the immensely experienced Theron. The fluidity of the combat is reminiscent of John Wick and Atomic Blonde as our heroes continually switch from gun to sword to fist, passing the weapons between them without even looking, demonstrating the many years of fighting they have endured at one another’s side. These sequences do a great job of displaying the intuition they share on the battlefield, an almost telepathic connection. Prince-Bythewood clearly knows her way around an action-sequence so this film will serve as nice big tick on her resume. Action is especially male-dominated even within the patriarchic movie industry so seeing top-draw, female-directed action from Prince-Bythewood, Patty Jenkins and Cate Shortland is an encouraging sign for female-fronted action films going forward.
Though the action brings momentum to the story and the film really starts to sing when the fighting kicks in, inevitably, it relents, and we are brought back down to an all too simplistic drama. Frequent attempts to pull us in with heavily drawn emotive moments fall flat and I found myself itching impatiently for the next conflict. What could have been powerful back-story felt sluggish and at the same time fleeting. The exploration of characters who’ve outlived their own families, who’ve known each other for centuries, is only partially fulfilled and comes across as half-written. Kiki Layne, fresh off an impressive performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, is Nile, the newest of our indestructible heroes and serves as the secondary character after Theron. There are some interesting wrinkles examined through her story as she struggles to comprehend and come to terms with her freshly acquired super power but even here, the finer points lack depth and profundity. Theron gets the lion’s share of the emotional heavy lifting with flashes of her long and violent history embellishing her character and though intriguing, the film soon switches back to the present where these details have little-to-no bearing on the story. None of this is to say the performances are poor, but the material they are given is rather thin and pretty superfluous. There is a lot of fertile ground to be covered but these beats came across as obligatory rather than an exciting look into some interesting and complex themes. It reads like a prequel to a film that doesn’t yet exist which is becoming a tiresome trait of films that are uncertain of a second commission.
The ‘villain’ of the film is Pharma CEO Merrick played by Harry Melling. A man intent on capturing the immortal death squad in the hopes of discovering their secrets. Unfortunately, he is so motivated by money and greed that it makes his character very two-dimensional. The absence of moral ambiguity and lack of nuance results in a desperately uninteresting ‘baddy’. An admiral performance, but with so little to work with, there’s not much Melling could have done to salvage the character. I felt Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Copley to be the one saving grace for the mortals. Driven not by greed but by the slow and heart-rending demise of his wife, Copley’s motivations are altruistic, even if his methods are questionable. He wants to rid the world of disease, cure cancer, find ways to use the immortal’s genes to do good. However, the black and white canvas on which Ejiofor and Melling’s characters are painted is an all too obtuse portrayal of a potentially compelling dynamic.
Ruling – Well if a quirky action film with a couple big names and axe-wielding heroines is your bag then I say go for it. Let’s face it, Charlize Theron wasting bad guys in creative and wince-inducing ways is one of the great pleasures of life. Add to this the fact you can sit in your PJs munching on a large-marge (pizza) then you’re all set for a big night in. Don’t expect any mind-blowing plot twists or profound commentaries on mortality and you won’t be disappointed.