How does the idea of a movie featuring Charlize Theron leading a band of age-old immortal mercenaries sound to you? What if it tossed in the likes of Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” standout Kiki Layne? I posed that question a few weeks ago after the first trailer dropped for “The Old Guard”, a new action-superhero mashup from Netflix that sounds a lot better than it ends up being.
The film is based on a comic book by Greg Rucka who also wrote the screenplay. It’s set in present day and follows a group of immortals, the only ones of the kind, who throughout history have tried to fight for what’s right. They’re led by Theron’s Andy (aka Andromache of Scythia), the oldest of the group but don’t dare ask her how old (“Scythia” is a pretty good indicator). Booker (Schoenaerts) fought with Napoleon. Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) met during the Crusades.
So basically the four never grow old although they somehow grew to the ages of the cast members who play them. Then apparently they stopped aging. Who knows? I don’t remember the movie explaining it although it could have been crammed in the various info dumps we get throughout the middle of the story. Also they don’t die thanks to their Wolverine-like healing factor. Bullets, bombs, blades – they can live through it all. That is until their supernatural healing just suddenly stops for no real reason whatsoever. Then they can die.
That kind of lack of detail plagues much of “The Old Guard” whether you’re talking about the characters or the story itself. It glazes over backstory with an almost casual disinterest, mentioning things from the past and even tossing in some flashbacks. There’s also an oddly developed love angle that doesn’t feel remotely organic. None of it amounts to much except for setting up a sequel. The ending leaves no doubt about the movie’s franchise aspirations.
The main storyline revolves around an evil pharmaceutical company ran by a weaselly young exec named Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) “The youngest CEO in pharma” he proudly boasts. Predictably his plans are to capture the immortals and replicate their powers for his own nefarious purposes. And he has an entire army of indistinguishable and utterly disposable soldiers to make sure he gets what he wants.
Meanwhile the perpetually sullen Andy has grown frustrated with the lack of impact their group’s work is having. “The world can burn for all I care” she mutters. But before she and the team can throw in the towel, they all have an interconnected dream (don’t ask) letting them know that another immortal has emerged. Enter Kiki Layne, so good in “Beale Street” but a bit out of her element here. She’s fine when it comes to pure physicality. But she has a tougher time selling her character dramatically, often overacting and rarely given a quieter moment to show off her strengths. As for Ejiofor, he’s given little to do other than stand to the side and offer stunned reactions to the things he sees.
“The Old Guard” has some good names attached and the idea of immortal mercenaries, each with a John Wick-like gift of nailing headshots, has promise. But director Gina Prince-Bythewood can’t wrangle it all together and Rucka’s script leaves too many questions while offering characters who need more heft. So you’re left with the action which offers a smattering of ‘wow’ moments with an occasional touch of style. Sadly there aren’t enough of them to rescue the film from its more mediocre genre impression. “The Old Guard” opens this Friday on Netflix.
VERDICT – 2 STARS