Film Review – The Old Guard
The Old Guard
Being able to live forever comes with its pros and cons. For one, you’ll have watch all of your friends and family get old and pass on. But on the other hand, you’ll get to witness all of humankind’s biggest events. At the very least, you’ll be able to tell some interesting stories. And that’s where my issue with The Old Guard (2020) lies. While this action-fantasy is well equipped with an abundance of combat, it’s populated by a bunch of morose characters who are a drag to hang out with. If you’re going to be saddled next to someone for all eternity, you better hope they have a sense of humor.
Andy (Charlize Theron) is the head of a crew of immortal warriors who have fought to keep humanity safe for centuries. They are unable to die, and when wounded can magically heal themselves. Apparently, the healing ability varies from person to person, but the movie doesn’t concern itself with those details. In the present, the crew are fashioned as well-trained mercenaries, taking on odd jobs and rescue missions. But all the hard work seems to have been for naught as they continue to watch societies rot under the weight of corruption and evil. This has left Andy in a state of melancholy – why continue to fight when nothing gets better? That’s a pretty defeatist attitude, and it only took her eras to reach that point.
It’s surprising how serious this all is when the material begs for some laughs. Gina Prince-Bythewood directs Greg Rucka’s screenplay (based on his graphic novel) in a straight-forward manner. Yet every so often the narrative gets so silly that it becomes unintentional comedy. It’s impressive how Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) can talk about fighting alongside Napoleon with a straight face, or how Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) describe their relationship (going back to The Crusades) as though they were reminiscing over their first date. If that weren’t enough, occasionally we are brought into a flashback where Theron and the others are dressed head to toe in period-specific costumes, whether it be Middle Age armor or Vietnam War fatigues. It was hard seeing these elements contrasted together and not think it funny.
All of these instances beg for further exploration (I mean, what was it like fighting next to Napolean?) but the narrative has to stick to the conventions of a superhero origin story. That’s where we meet Nile (KiKi Layne) a U.S. Marine who discovers that she too has the power to heal. Once discovered, she is thrust into this unmerry band of wandering soldiers. Like every other superhero origin, Nile is brought into this world, discovers its history and has to come to grips with her newfound abilities. She also acts as a counterpoint to Andy, providing some optimism against Andy’s increasingly dire pessimism.
The main story is forgettable – a mixed bag of twists and double crosses that don’t amount to much. A couple of supporting characters are worth mentioning. The first is Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) an ex-CIA agent who recruits Andy’s team for their latest assignment. Of course, we wouldn’t get much of a movie if that mission went exactly according to plan. The other is our main antagonist, Merrick (Harry Melling). Merrick is the head of a pharmaceutical company that wants to capture the crew, poke and prod them, and create a drug that could help extend human life. That…doesn’t actually sound all that evil?
But let’s toss all that out for a second and focus on the action. The stunt choreography is efficiently handled, borrowing a little bit of the John Wick style of point blank gunshots and tough hand to hand fighting. The cast handles the physical requirements well, each one looking like they’ve been doing this for a long time and not a couple of weeks prior to production. The issue is not in the choreography but in the editing. The action scenes are so overly edited that it becomes distracting. Almost every punch, kick, and gunshot is accompanied by a cut. One fight scene is captured from so many different angles that it felt like the film was too impatient to hold a shot longer than two seconds. The editing dampens the effect of the choreography.
The Old Guard is a good movie if you choose to ignore things like story, an interesting villain, and well edited battle scenes. It’s a humdrum undertaking where the most exciting bit (the action) is just ok at best. And most egregiously, it lays the foundation for more entries to come. Must every superhero/comic book adaptation build toward a larger universe? Must everything end on a cliffhanger, basically acting as advertising for an entire franchise? Is there no more room for self-contained stories anymore? The story sets itself up like its characters: To be never-ending.