Title: The Old Guard
Director: Gina Prince-Brythewood
Screenplay: Greg Rucka
[somber music playing]
Previously, I kind of facetiously suggested there was no point in reviewing anything, as various audience segments each consume entertainment for wildly different reasons, and their aims or intentions often do not align with those of reviewers, critics, award judges, or other gatekeepers of cultural quality. What I had not considered, and what I’m now—after watching Netflix’s latest action-caper “The Old Guard”—forced to consider, is that I omitted one case in which reviewing is at best pointless and at worst counter-productive: What if the product itself isn’t meant to be that good?
After “Titan”, “Mute”, “Extraction” and now “The Old Guard”, I’m starting to get the feeling that what Netflix is aiming for is not excellence, but a kind of good-enoughness, sufficiently competent and well-made that it elicits just enough delight among a target audience segment, but done on the cheap, taking few risks, skimping on script in favor of visuals. And it’s hard to critique something that doesn’t feel like it was ever meant to be that great anyway. It’s the brainless summer action blockbuster minus the block-busting and available year-round. It being good or bad feels almost beside the point.
[suspenseful music playing]
“The Old Guard” stars Charlize Theron as “Andy”, Andromanche the Scythian, an unkillable, fast-healing immortal along the lines of the Highlander or Wolverine or Deadpool or Hayden Panettiere’s character on “Heroes” and yes, this concept is precisely as tired and worn-out as Charlize’s cynical Andy.
Aside from a few flashback scenes in some rather unfortunate Xena cosplay, the story focuses on Andy and her team of three other centuries-old immortals, guy (Marwan Kanzari), other guy (Luca Marinelli) and slightly shifty guy (Matthias Schoenaerts) as they battle Martin Shkreli-esque pharmabro Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to turn them into lab mice for the development of new drugs based on their DNA. A new wrinkle occurs when a US Marine deployed to Afghanistan (KiKi Layne) suddenly discovers she, too, is immortal.
[Frankie Ocean playing]
The plot is utterly predictable. The team is double-crossed in precisely the way that you expect, by the person that you expect. After we learn that immortality sometimes wears off, the person you expect to become mortal again does. When the team is captured, they are rescued by exactly the person you expect in precisely the way you expect. While one was previously encouraged to switch off one’s brain for action movies, in this case it becomes almost mandatory. To the point where it feels almost like a deliberate choice.
For example, they say the famous Nigerian Prince Email scam was written in a suspicious, fishy, blatantly scammy style in order to turn off anybody with half a brain, as the scam’s targets were the truly naïve and stupid. Anybody else was a waste of the scammers’ time, so they set up the scam so that the audience would self-select: Only those staggeringly dumb enough to fall for it would bother to respond.
And the cynical part of me wonders if that’s what’s happening here. I’d like to believe Greg Rucka, the man who wrote the original comic book on which the movie is based, is capable of coming up with an original twist or plot point. Yet the movie is absolutely, totally laser-focused on not surprising you in any way, shape or form.
[electropop music playing]
The dialog is dull and utilitarian. The fights are jerkily shot and confusingly edited, and feature the Wickensian headshotting we’ve already seen ad nauseum in three John Wick movies, not to mention Netflix’s own Extraction. Theron essentially reprises her Furiosa role from “Mad Max” albeit with a better haircut, but the others of her team make little to no impression at all. They all behave exactly like a modern action-movie Special Forces team, and nothing at all like 1,000-year-old warriors.
Side note: Why do these people need to eat and sleep? Doesn’t the not-dying bit prevent you from starving or suffering from a lack of REM? What happens if you cut their heads off? The implications of their abilities largely go unconsidered, save for a flashback sequence in which Veronica Ngo’s character is chucked into the sea inside an iron coffin, to drown and revive and drown again for eternity. It’s the one genuinely creepy scene in the whole movie, and one I was hoping was going to power the plot, but nope, bog-standard baddies it is (Ngo’s character reappears at the very end in an obvious set-up for a sequel).
[another misplaced musical cue playing]
There isn’t much nice I can say about the rest of it, I’m afraid. The score, as I’ve hinted, is intrusive and rarely fits the mood of the scene. Thematically, it’s a bit of a mess: The preciousness of human life, how fleeting it is, ah me, oh my, such pathos, now let’s go murder 50 faceless goons with headshots that totally go SPLAT all over the walls.
The action is frequently preposterous—upon discovering her rapid-healing abilities, Layne’s squad-mates immediately turn on her. Why? Andy abducts Layne from a US army base in Afghanistan in a Humvee. How? Layne drives about a creepily empty London, streets totally deserted, until after the big escape and then cops and a crowd show up. What? I’m not a fan of the Cinema Sins style of criticism and searching for “plot holes” but this movie simply constricts itself in nonsensical plot lines.
[Gummi Bear viral song from 2007 playing]
But none of it matters. This is a movie for all the Charlize Theron stans out there. Your queen kicks ass. Yeah! In what feels like a deliberate shot at macho action-movie tropes, she’s a lesbian, Marwan and Luca’s characters are a gay couple, the new addition to the team is a black woman, the bad guy is a white dude with an army of white dudes in cop gear. I can tell the online discourse for this movie is going to be dominated by the presence of these elements. If representation matters to you, then all the headthumpingly dull plotting and wooden characterization probably won’t make any difference. If SJW-ness or whatever are your personal bugbear, no number of killer action scenes would have saved it.
It just has to be good enough to get a pass with its target audience, and they’ll defend it to the death. A thousand words of mine aren’t going to change any minds one way or the other. So I’ll stop.