Immortal humans have been a tried and true narrative device for centuries, dating as far back as the Wandering Jew in the 1200s. It has given us many icons, using immortality to tell a story of extraordinary beings and their equally remarkable lives, often highlighting fundamental truths about humanity and the values of life and death. When The Old Guard‘s very beginning gives away the immortality hook that’s “revealed” ten minutes later anyway, in one of the shittiest recent forms of in media res, it was evident that it would not join any notable echelons, nor would it be a very good movie on its own.
The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries, led by Andromache (Charlize Theron), colloquially known as “Andy”, as they traverse around and try to do good in the world. When they’re discovered by CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), pharmaceutical tycoon Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) tries to get a hold of them to determine the cause of their immortality and commercialize it. But also the group senses a new immortal – Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. marine in Afghanistan – and they take her under their wing, despite her resistance.
Alright, so we have a I-see-the-beats-from-miles-away story, but that’s not super important, right? The Old Guard‘s all about the cool immortals, after all. Too bad the characters are all dead flat for the first hour, with Charlize Theron doing a shockingly bad job at playing the “I’m tired and grumpy and wear sunglasses and call people ‘kid’ because I have BACKSTORY that I’m not going to tell you right away because I’m TIRED and GRUMPY of everyone’s shit” character, emoting in such a non-subtle manner that I’m not sure if she’s actively bored or just angry with the role (I later found out she produced the movie, so make of that what you will). Andy and her main sidekick, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), drink a bit, but it doesn’t affect them, as this is a movie that believes arbitrary actions equal personalities and signify deeper inner lives. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is immediately awful, borderline video-gamey (I heard variations of “go get some rest” around three times in 20-some minutes) and giving us nothing to sink into.
This bleeds into the overarching issue that The Old Guard believes immortality is a story unto itself, and that the concept is more interesting than it is, even though this is far from a mysterious take on it. It’s like if we got a Star Wars movie purely about the workings of the Force – nobody would care about such a thing, it’s not very intriguing, but that’s because Star Wars can, and does, use the Force as a platform to tell richer stories. The Old Guard doesn’t take advantage of this principle, being more content to focus just on immortality and the predictable long-term inner turmoil it causes. Then it has the audacity to give us the Evil Big Pharma Villain storyline – and the villain is fucking terrible, an irritating non-character running through the most basic motions – and the Hesitant Rookie storyline and call it a day.
Insult to injury, the ending clearly sets up a sequel with the one plot thread that would’ve been great here, focusing on Andy’s ancient sidekick Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), who was sentenced to an eternity underwater in an iron maiden, recurrently resuscitating and drowning for centuries. It’s a nightmare and the flashback sequence is easily the most affecting scene in The Old Guard, laden with terror from both Ngo and Theron. The flashback sequences, no matter how fleeting, bring great life to the movie, transporting us to times and places more vibrant and inherently exciting than the comparatively sterile modern settings we’re taken to otherwise. And we are taken to many places in The Old Guard, but they all feel like window dressing – big panning shots to give you a sense of scale for the movie, a sense of adventure, but the lack of emotion and purpose (it takes forever to realize that the only conflict happening here is Evil Big Pharma) makes it incredibly difficult to get enthralled by any of it.
Much of this comes down to the characterization, or lack thereof. Aside from Andy, Nile has great promise during her first scenes, but descends into boilerplate (again, Hesitant Rookie who obviously has a change of heart) and Layne isn’t very convincing. Ejiofor is wasted in a neutered, boring role where he just exists. Schoenaerts humanizes Booker quite well, presenting a man tormented and rash by the loss of uncountable loved ones over the centuries, while Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are lovers who bonded after being initial enemies in the Crusades. Credit is very due to The Old Guard for giving us a to-the-point, genuinely loving gay couple, summarized extremely well by Joe in a speech about love and its eternal possibilities, easily the best character moment in the film. The Old Guard doesn’t focus so much on these characters, meaning moments like that are few and far between.
Then you have the action, the solace I sought most, and The Old Guard can’t even do that very well. Not only is it sparse, it’s dry, lacking energy and any sort of momentum to propel the scenes, save for the very final fight. The first fight, taking place in a desert compound, is particularly bad – choppy editing that disorients us in the compound’s space, cuts too quickly between the immortals for us to get a good impression of their capabilities. That problem doesn’t persist much, thankfully, but The Old Guard fails to let us bask in its action, and what’s good – like Andy solo-fighting military personnel by an old house – is over way too soon to have considerable impact. These are quick action sequences, giving us a few flips here, a few blade slices there, yet there’s no real verve to it, and it’s so brisk that there’s nothing to really stare at and admire, which is a shame when we’re blessed with R-rated action like John Wick that treats its fights like bloody little ballets. Hell, The Old Guard severely lags compared to Theron’s own action vehicles, lacking the grit and adrenaline of Mad Max: Fury Road and the intoxicating style of Atomic Blonde. It’s not the editing horror story known as Æon Flux, but your bar should not be “well, at least it wasn’t fucking Æon Flux.”
So where does this leave us? Most of the characters are boring and surprisingly unintelligent despite some having literal centuries-worth of knowledge, the action isn’t exciting, lacking any discernible style or flair (my notes include one shot that pans up at Merrick’s headquarters in the third act, and it’s such a hideous shot on many levels, as though the cameraperson was shitting themselves while tilting the camera), and the story is as wholly pedestrian as they come. The soundtrack is horrific, plugging in pop music that doesn’t jive at all with action that begs for a hefty operatic score. I realize The Old Guard is based on the comic book of the same name (I’ve never read it, to be fair), but a movie’s shortcomings can’t be absolved by sole virtue of being an adaptation.
All that said, there are good ideas scattered about, often in the form of the immortals’ actions throughout history, and I’d much rather see that movie than one that can’t even do the kindness of being entertaining popcorn fare.
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