The Old Guard opens on dead bodies — bloody, pierced, damaged bodies. The sight might be a shock, but it will only be so momentarily. Because if this film has anything, it’s lots of lethal injuries.
Based on Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández’s graphic novel of the same name and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the story follows Andy (Charlize Theron) and her small underground team of operatives as they’re contacted by an old client looking to hire them for a second time. When they find themselves set up and exposed by an enemy with unknown motivations, they have no choice but to go on the offense and find those responsible for the attack. If this sounds familiar, it’s because there are lots of other movies that have a similar synopsis, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to name one. But there’s a twist: The Old Guard might have been a typical job gone wrong film if it weren’t for the fact its operatives — or “army” as Andy calls them — are near-immortal soldiers who can recover from bullet wounds to the head in a matter of minutes.
The Old Guard throws this twist in hard and fast, but just because something sounds intriguing on paper doesn’t mean it is in practice. And unfortunately for all us Theron-kicking-ass fans out there, the big screen result is far from interesting. The betrayal laden plot is off to the races before it has given us much incentive to care, and the theme of emotional beats that fail to connect and unearned revelations continue for the rest of the running time — which seems to dedicate its set pieces to out of place needle drops reminiscent of bad coming of age films. The film is halfway done before there’s a good understanding of dynamics, motivations, and personality. The problem isn’t that it’s a cold open, but rather how the emotional scope of the film struggles to keep pace with the events of the plot. When story beats happen they come across as if they’re meant to be revealing and engrossing, but it’s like the feelings that are meant to be translated with them to the viewer are running late.
The early atmosphere is angsty and thick. These are bad-asses and we’re to reckon with this fact. They’re lethal and work exceptionally well as a unit. Although the action is nothing to write home about, there is a Gothic axe Andy wields that can spice up any gunfight that’s about to get boring. But the reality is the team love each other and do have soft spots that are more honed in on than what you might expect from this kind of story. They’ve known each other a long time, and their death-defying ability binds them together. Only they understand the solitude of their condition, and they use it to fight for what they believe to be right.
Matters get more complicated when the group becomes aware of a new immortal, Kiki Layne’s Nile, who doesn’t yet understand their version of reality. Nile is a success as the audience surrogate and is the easiest to care about, but there’s a significant amount of exposition that comes along with her.
Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), who are perhaps the most sociable of the bunch, also happen to be in love. To see two tough fighters use their mutual affection as a strength and reason to keep living their unusually long lives instead of it being painted as a weakness was refreshing. Kenzari shines in one emotional scene in particular — one of the film’s only successful ones — where Joe describes Nicky as his moon and stars. In a laggy screenplay, the pair’s relationship is a sweet positive that adds some much-needed intimacy.
Though the plot grows stale pretty much as soon as it begins, as do many of the film’s moving parts, The Old Guard does make the most of its supernatural elements by letting us know just how grim it would be for one of the team to be captured. If a person cannot be killed, endless torture is the next best thing — as a few of their kind have found out. If any readers remember Stefan’s drowning torture in The Vampire Diaries, you’ll be familiar. More than that, there’s the ethical question of whether it’s right for them to stay hidden. Perhaps with studies on them, humanity could unlock life-saving solutions to disease. If there’s one thing The Old Guard does really well, it’s trying to engage with that idea while pointing fingers at the selfishness of big pharma.
The Old Guard sounded exciting and fresh, but it fails to communicate with its audience effectively and sustain interest. When all is said and done, there’s simply not much to grip onto. It’s not that the characters are unlikeable or that the film is incompetent, it’s just hard to sink your teeth into something that doesn’t turn its exciting premise into an exciting viewing experience. A film is made by stitching together a collection of moving images that tell a narrative in some way, but if nothing is felt during the consuming of them, for whatever reason, it undercuts all the hard work put in by the cast and crew. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why The Old Guard and myself diverted during its two hours, but the desire to continue watching unfortunately dwindled as the film progressed. Prince-Bythewood deserves credit for her unusual and character-based approach, but it never won this viewer over.
The Old Guard releases on Netflix on the 10th of July