Netflix’s latest film features Charlize Theron as ‘Andy’ leading a team of immortal mercenaries in The Old Guard. Over the course of hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands, Andy has played a part in momentous battles spanning centuries, writing history as we know it. Andy’s ability to regenerate keeps her in the fight time and time again, and along the way other warriors who share these mystic abilities join the fold.
We catch up to the undead goon squad in South Sudan where ex-CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has tasked the Old Guard with rescuing a group of children. Things turn sour pretty quickly as the squad are ambushed and mowed down by several agents, here we get our first taste of not only the protagonists’ regenerative abilities but also the slick, bloody action set pieces. Much like Netflix’s Extraction that released a couple months ago with Chris Hemsworth, the action here largely takes from the John Wick template; fast paced hand-to-hand combat incorporating martial arts with tightly choreographed one-shot gunplay. I suppose it’s testament to the quality of John Wick’s formula but the inevitable issue is that unless you can at least match the thing you’re mimicking then you risk leaving audiences underwhelmed. Which is exactly the feeling that The Old Guard left me with.
Back to the story though. After Copley betrays the Old Guard we find that he is working alongside pharmaceutical CEO asshole Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), a greedy, petulant brat who Copley convinces to hunt the Old Guard for the purposes of capture and testing, hoping to produce a drug using their unique DNA. Meanwhile in Afghanistan an American Marine, Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) suffers a disturbing vision seemingly linking her to the the Old Guard who then become alerted to her presence and move to intercept Freeman before she falls into the wrong hands. The story is serviceable enough but forgettable all the same. Comparatively, John Wick works because it deliberately makes the story obsolete to the action, it can be summed up in one line; man kills dog, he kills everyone else; and then the action does the talking for the rest of the movie. It works. But with The Old Guard, while it’s not exactly complex, it’s so utterly predictable that it’s painful. It would of worked better as a one-sentence story in my opinion and rather spent 90 minutes crafting exquisite action pieces, which are the only saving grace of the film.
But this a fantasy action film, so I can forgive mediocre story especially since some of my favourite films of all time spin sub-par narratives. Usually, besides great action, it would be the movie’s characters picking up the slack, right? Not the case here unfortunately. Charlize Theron sustains a barely convincing performance throughout the film, again it’s serviceable but nothing more and unfortunately this notion is continued for virtually the entire cast. The Old Guard squad members themselves are by far the best part, acting-wise and chemistry-wise but by no means can this be measured as an achievement. By far however, the most frustrating character I’ve seen in recent memory, has to be antagonist Harry Melling’s evil, big pharma Brit, Steven Merrick. I’m going to avoid detailing all his flaws but the main issue I take with Merrick is that he is simply not convincing, even remotely. His character has evidently been modelled on Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor to the point of dressing him in typical young CEO attire, the old combo of suit jacket over hoody and fresh white trainer – mix in a bad haircut, childish mannerisms and you have modern cinema’s lazy archetype for a young, egocentric millionaire. At least Lex Luthor was somewhat convincing.
That said; the action is what the movie is about and it is tantalising at times. Flash cuts zip between gun-fu headshots and bone crunching takedowns. The squad bounce off each other with synchronised manoeuvres, executing fodder in glorious fashion. Andy gets a tasty portion of death dealing as she cuts through an entire unit amidst a moody church backdrop. It’s not sufficient to make up for the overall movie but the action satisfies well enough to pace the audience through the film’s slightly bloated runtime.
Netflix’s The Old Guard is yet another middling offering for their original content library. The only saving grace is some nicely choreographed action set pieces but the film is unfortunately let down by it’s poorly realised characters and banal story. A strong cast can’t regenerate this effort.