One of the primary reasons many viewers struggle with superhero movies is the lack of intimate stakes. If a movie’s protagonist is the most powerful being on the planet, or sometimes even the galaxy, it’s difficult for us to care about their predicament, as they’re rarely under any real threat. Superman II, still the peak of superhero cinema, had to remove its eponymous hero’s superpowers to create some drama we could invest in, but even that ended up in an intergalactic punch-up.
The Old Guard, adapted by screenwriter Greg Rucka from his comic book of the same name, goes one emotional-distancing step further, making its heroes immortal. It’s no surprise when one of them loses their immortality, as it’s the only way to inject some stakes into this thing.
Led by Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron), who goes by the more accommodating name of Andy, a quartet of immortals - also including Sebastian le Livre aka Booker (Matthias Schoenarts), who is the brains of the bunch; crack sniper Nicolo di Genova aka Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and his lover Yusuf Al-Kaysani aka Joe (Marwan Kenzari) - have spent centuries fighting evil and attempting to save mankind from its worst elements. They currently work for Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former CIA agent who now runs a private company dedicated to fighting terror.
Copley’s latest assignment sends Andy and her ancient mates to South Sudan, ostensibly to free some hostages from a terrorist group, but once there they find themselves ambushed and gunned down. Of course, being immortal, they only remain dead for a few seconds, and wipe out their attackers immediately upon revival. Figuring out that Copley has betrayed her team, Andy sets out for revenge, but things are complicated by the emergence of a new immortal, US marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), who miraculously comes back to life after having her throat slit while serving in Afghanistan. Andy tracks down Nile and takes the reluctant young immortal under her wing.
The premise of a group of warriors who have survived for centuries is an intriguing one. Under Andy’s leadership, The Old Guard are sort of a do-gooder version of Lance Henriksen’s vampire clan from Near Dark. But for a group of intelligent people who have lived on this planet for several millennia, they don’t seem to have learned too many lessons. Andy has grown weary because she feels the world is getting worse, which is objectively far from the case, and it’s hard to believe someone who lived through the Roman Empire, the Crusades and the Holocaust hasn’t seen any progress. 2020 might be worse than 2019, but this is like denying global warming because last summer was hotter than this year. Why does Andy adopt a whack-a-mole approach to tackling relatively minor incidents as they arise, rather than looking at the big picture? Why not use her centuries of acquired wisdom to affect change through politics, like a reverse Damien from The Omen, or through science and medicine, like an amped up immortal riff on Rock Hudson’s playboy turned surgeon in Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession?
Well, the answer is that this is an action movie, and the audience demands brawling and shooting over debating and studying. That’s all fine, but the movie never integrates its heroes’ long lives into its action scenes. You might imagine Andy and co. employing a range of weaponry and tactics gleaned through the ages, but that’s not the case here, and under Gina Prince-Bythewood’s TV-like direction, the action scenes (which are thin on the ground) are as generic as any other comic book movie, relying on the now de rigueur “double-tap” gun-fu style that grew tiresome across three John Wick movies. References to past dust-ups are dropped in dialogue (“Remember Sao Paulo in 34?”) but more flashbacks are required to truly give us a sense of what this lot have experienced. This is a movie - show us what they’ve endured, don’t simply tell us. Despite its faults, this year’s Vin Diesel vehicle Bloodshot was a more interesting take on a similar premise.
For centuries-old warriors, Andy’s team are remarkably naive, perhaps the most incompetent heroes since Adam West and Burt Ward sucked in their bellies to don their unflattering Batman and Robin costumes. In the first half alone we witness Andy allow herself to be set up for an ambush, fall asleep so someone else can tie her up, and somehow miss the small army attacking her three subordinates while she has a pep talk with Nile only a few meters away. The villains aren’t any better. Fully aware of their combatants’ immortality, they keep trying to shoot them rather than blowing them to bits. Can Andy recover from being blown to smithereens? Would her body parts regroup like a liquid Terminator? The movie relies on your never asking such an inconvenient question.
With a lack of summer blockbusters at the cinema this summer, Netflix will be hoping The Old Guard can quench the thirst of action fans. But if you’re expecting large scale action, look elsewhere. With an A-list star and a globe-trotting narrative, The Old Guard has the trappings of the modern tentpole action movie, but it’s very much straight to video schlock. Think of a Mission Impossible movie. Now remove the jaw-dropping set-pieces of that franchise and replace them with blandly rendered shootouts accompanied by R&B music more befitting a Fifty Shades sex scene - that’s what you get here. Swap out Theron for Lundgren or Van Damme and The Old Guard begins to resemble the average mediocre action flick that disappears into the VOD void on a weekly basis. With a post-credits stinger, it’s clearly designed as a franchise starter, but it’s hard to imagine too many viewers clamoring for a sequel, at least not in this century.
The Old Guard - 2 stars out of 5
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood; Starring: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofo
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com