Old Guard, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/08/20 21:21:19
The presence of Charlize Theron in any movie is, of course, an undeniably good thing but when she turns up in an action-oriented project, her combination of genuine dramatic gifts and equally convincing physical abilities can help make an otherwise iffy film into something worth checking out (“Atomic Blonde”) and an already great film into the thing of legends (“Mad Max: Fury Road”). And yet, not even her considerable presence is enough to help save “The Old Guard,” a disappointing banal action extravaganza that takes a potentially interesting premise and then never gets around to doing much of anything with it.Based on the comic book series by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay, Theron plays Andy, the leader of a group of four mercenaries—also including Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari)—and as the story opens, they are hired for a mission by ex-CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that turns out to be a setup that ends with them all being gunned down. This is not as dire as it sounds since the four are all quasi-immortal who have been roaming the Earth for a very long time (the youngest of them once fought with Napoleon) doing good deeds, even though an increasingly cynical Andy fears that their efforts are for nothing. Now on the run from Copley’s true employer, a big pharma billionaire (Harry Melling) who sees them as the key to developing powerful anti-aging drugs that will make him even richer from before, Andy and the others discover that there is a new person out there who seems to have their powers—a Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne) who seems to have survived a throat slashing without a single mark—and they bring her into the fold and show her the ropes of immortality before preparing for the final standoff with the pharma bro, who has already kidnapped two of them in order to forcibly harvest their DNA.
On paper, “The Old Guard” seems to have all the necessary ingredients for two hours of cheerfully mindless action fun, complete with extra pulp but it is never quite as fun as it sounds like it should be. The storyline is basically a mashup of “Highlander” and all the Wolverine-related material from the “X-Men” films and while that may sound appealing enough to genre buffs, it just feels like a lazy approach to ideas that deserve a better handling—if you have a warrior who is old enough to have apparently fought at the battle of Troy, the idea of setting her up against a Martin Shkreli wannabe seems like a waste of resources. The screenplay weirdly seems to go out of its way to avoid having any fun with the premise other than to occasionally have its heroes kill their foes with swords instead of simply gunning them down. (There is one good line when Nile asks the group if they are the good guys or bad guys and one of them replies “Depends on the century,” a bit of dialogue that offers a new world of insight that it seems unwilling to explore.) Another strange aspect to the screenplay is the fact that even though the team is supposed to be this crack unit that has lived long enough to see all the angles, they don’t appear to be especially good at what they are doing and tend to blunder into big and obvious traps for no other reason than to serve the machinations of the plot in the most clunky way imaginable.
Although director Gina Prince-Bythewood does a more impressive job of handling the big action beats than one might expect from the director of such previous efforts as “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights,” she cannot make the fight-free scenes come across as anything other than filler. As for Theron, she is fine and definitely gives her all in the fight scenes but there are times when she seems as jaded and world-weary about taking part in another action spectacle as Andy is in fighting for a world that she no longer believes is capable of good. (Her often-spoken belief that the world is getting worse and worse seems a little peculiar for someone who presumably lived through the Black Plague.) Of the supporting players, the only real standouts are Marinelli and Kenzari, whose characters met and fell in love while fighting on opposite sides during the Crusades and who are still enthralled by each other. This is a lovely little touch and indicative of the intriguing ways in which the story could have been developed in braver or bolder hands.Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between in order to make more room for the endless fight scenes and Theron’s character going through her dark millennium of the shoul before perking up just in time for the finale. If this were just another run-of-the-mill superhero tale, such artistic sins might not sting too much but considering the promise of the premise, the flat execution that it has been granted here somehow makes it feel more disappointing than usual. The one bright spot is that there if there does end up being a follow-up film (and one is hinted at during a brief coda seen during the end credits), it will take advantage of the missteps made the first time around to come up with a film that is actually worthy of this particular concept.
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