The Old Guard is as stoic as its immortal lead, but it’s also just as dull. For such a ripe premise with an actress fully capable of delivering meaty action with compelling drama, this is a movie that trudges along from setpiece to exposition dump to dour, unremarkable resolution. Watching it feels like being the parent of a child that simply won’t apply themselves: it’s not bad, I’m just disappointed.
Based on the comics of the same name (with the creator Greg Rucka writing the screenplay), The Old Guard tells the story of a set of warriors that, for the most part, cannot die. Shoot ’em, stab ’em, whatever. They just get back up. One is just two centuries old, a couple that has been around since the Crusades, and their leader Andy (Charlize Theron) has seen history unfold since, ostensibly, 3000 years ago. And now they dedicate their time to being benevolent mercenaries across huge swaths of time.
This is such a strong concept. Especially with the addition of newcomer immortal Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), we are treated to the spectrum of effects that this life can impart. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), for instance, is old to it having fought under Napoleon, but he’s still fairly new to the idea of enduring history rather than living it. So his push for Andy to accept a hostage rescue assignment (which kicks off the story) as a moral imperative makes logical contrast to her reluctance. She has rules for surviving.
You get that she is struggling with the life and lives she has lived. It’s hard to not get jaded from millennia of losing people and relationships and battles, but she’s not fully there yet. She’s just on the cusp, and she knows it, and it’s wearing her down. It’s incredible drama, especially as they pair her for much of the beginning with Nile, who is still having trouble coming to terms with the idea of eternity.
But it’s squandered. We don’t get much of that philosophical tension. It does come through in some choice spots, such as with the couple Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), two enemies of the battlefield who have been centuries-old lovers, a relationship that culminates in a wonderfully cheesy and incongruous speech about a timeless connection. And Andy’s necessarily cold mechanization of killing is striking to see, especially through Nile’s eyes.
It doesn’t go any further, though. So much of the movie is spent expositing the bare mechanics of these immortal beings. And I get it; it’s a tough problem to solve. We need to understand precisely how this gift can fail them in order for us to precisely empathize with them, but we never get to that second stage. We’re mired in the prologue to some better story. One that doesn’t spend so much time waffling between being a tale of fighting in the face of boundless loss and one of some obtuse rumination on the ethical failings of big pharma under a capitalist society.
This extends to the actual action sequences. For the most part, director Gina Prince-Bythewood does a great job. (So cool that someone can go from Love & Basketball to a project like this.) She manages to keep a digestible grasp on staging and operatic motion, allowing hits to play in the wide shot whenever possible so we get the full impact of these actors doing their action thing.
But they rarely involve the (once again) juicy premise of immortal beings fighting regular henchmen. We get glimpses of them working as a cohesive unit that has been at it for centuries with one another, but that’s also every spec ops summer blockbuster. There is a distinct and distracting lack of ingenuity with these powers. At best, we watch them just tank hits because they know they can, but there’s very rarely anything in these sequences that stand out as imaginative.
Even in the aforementioned hostage rescue opener, we are gifted with seeing repeats, some soupe du jour maneuvers courtesy of the gritty action zeitgeist from John Wick and the like. Along with life, shouldn’t these warriors be bored with such rote combat? Wouldn’t their tactics expand alongside their fluency in languages and cultures? These are meat and potatoes fighters when they’re also challenging Andy’s palette to discern various types of Mediterranean spices.
It’s clear there’s a grander story to be told here. Larger mythos and motivations and intrigue about becoming numb to both your own life and effecting change for other lives. But none of it comes through. At least not in full. We are treated to a sampler platter of what this world and these characters have to offer, each with a smattering of conflict and resolution arising from their obviously detailed backstories that all serve…something?
It’s hard to tell. Hopefully that something is a more substantial and meaningful movie as a planned trilogy comes out of this release. But who knows. As for now, we have this perfectly acceptable if completely unremarkable film.
Final Score: 6 out of 10