Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and their leader Andy (Charlize Theron) are the best mercenaries in the world, in large part due to their being immortal heroes. Their latest job turns out to be a trap, set by ex-CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who wants to capture them and turn them over to evil pharmaceutical CEO Merrick (Harry Melling). They escape, but now must hunt down Copley while he hunts for them. And at this delicate time, a new immortal awakens, the first in 200 years. Andy must find Nile (KiKi Layne), a marine who just recovered from dying from her throat being cut, and bring her into the group as they fight to avoid capture.
Covid has shut down the theaters and with nothing (or little) new for months, The Old Guard has been received with rejoicing. It’s an actual movie, with actual stars and special effects and fight choreography, and it’s been so long since we’ve had one of those. It also has a fun premise—riffing off of The Highlander, plenty of action, a diverse cast, and Charlize Theron, whose proven herself to be both a fine actress and a kickass action star. What’s not to love?
Considering NetFlix’s track record, I should have tapped down my expectations. It’s not a bad film, but about as weak as you can make when you start with “The Highlander, but with special forces and Charlize Theron.” The fights are reasonable, but outside of those, The Old Guard is not a good looking film. The colors are drab, the shots are uninventive, and the lighting is no better than you’d get from a weekly TV show. The direction is totally without flair and is scraping by at workman-like.
The script, particularly the dialog, is a bigger problem. There’s a lot of talking that says very little. This is an “immortals kill people” movie, so stopping to have a discussion on how one of our immortals isn’t going to kill people is frustrating, because we know she’s going to kill people. Likewise the chatting about family is pointless as it goes nowhere. They’d have been much smarter to simply have our new immortal have no human connections.
The characters are a mixed bag. Theron is given little, but she doesn’t need much, and the two gay crusaders are the high point of the film. However our new recruit is barely a character who just objects to being there over and over again. The main villain is a cartoon cliché. This movie is going for gritty, so having a guy running around who has no layers—he’s just EEEEEVVILLLL—is out of place and lazy.
And yet I haven’t gotten to the real problems. Firstly, they needed to have chosen a lead. Who’s the main character, Andy or Nile? I’d have chosen Andy, but they needed to have chosen one of them, beefing up their part, letting us into their thoughts, and letting us connect with that person. With both using up screen time, the focus is missing. The other even larger issue, is who thought it was a good idea to coat your Highlander clone with depression? In the original Highlander, the main character was depressed about his situation, but that wasn’t the tone of the entire film. This one is all about sad immortals, and boy are they sad, and boy are they going to let you know. So… much… sad. These are drama queen immortals, which could have been interesting (could have, though probably not) in a more philosophical picture, but the key theme of this film is shoving sharp objects into other people, so maybe actually aiming for fun would have been clever.
The Old Guard also pushes too hard to be a franchise. It supplies a flashback and dialog about events that have no bearing on this film, but are setup for the next. Unfortunately, that story seems far more interesting than the one presented in this film and I couldn’t help thinking about where that would go instead of dwelling on their fight with evil-pharma guy.
If this sounds pretty dire, well, there’s immortals with blades, gay crusaders, and Charlize Theron, which means The Old Guard has some entertainment value. It just should have had more and I know a dozen directors who could have made it more.