The Old Guard begins in a relatively familiar place. An elite, covert mercenary group gets hired by an independent party to complete a run-of-the-mill job, only to find that they’ve been set up. It is the standard fare for the genre. To be fair, of course, the opening shot of the film is the leader of this crew, known as Andy (Charlize Theron), apparently lying dead on the ground, her body littered with bullet holes, so it isn’t all generically familiar.
It turns out that this team of mercenaries has been around longer than you might think—centuries, in fact millennia in some cases. The old guard, indeed. These lethal immortals aim to protect (mostly) while also staying off the grid. Unfortunately for them, they may have just been found out by a third party that could financially benefit from their undying DNA.
The Old Guard is the latest in the line of Netflix Original action films, and, in terms of recent memory, it is one of the more entertaining. This is not to say it is extraordinary by any means. But it holds one’s attention better than The Last Days of American Crime. So that’s something. This film’s premise is intriguing, but, despite some well-directed sequences, the execution of its narrative is clunky.
This is particularly evident in the middle of the film, when everything needs to be explained and our grizzled characters just sit around and tell instead of show. Because there is only two hours to tell this story, the emotionally weighty backstories of five characters are condensed into a handful of bland, often cliche-ridden monologues which fill up static space in-between bloody action sequences. This oscillation between the characters lying in wait and them suddenly bursting into action is, first and foremost, repetitive, but it also makes the whole film feel lumpy, unbalanced.
The film is written by Greg Rucka, who is adapting his own graphic novels. I can see this narrative working more smoothly on the comics page. The flashbacks would likely be better integrated. The characters would have more time to develop and garner reader sympathy. The stop-start of the action, even, can flow differently on the page. On screen, however, this adaptation struggles to find its footing as it hurtles toward a visceral, if not underwhelming, climax.
The action choreography is, broadly speaking, fairly good. If not overly stagey, it is at least not ripped apart by too frequent edits. Occasionally, a shot surprises with a clever bit of staging. And Theron’s presence as an action hero remains as compelling as in previous films. KiKi Layne, too, who enters the fold as a new initiate into this world of immortals, is a thrilling presence in action sequences.
Her character, however, is another casualty of the film’s clunky script. Nile is a strange presence in the film. She exists as an audience surrogate, but, as an individual character with thoughts and emotions, she does not hold up to much scrutiny. For one thing, she is brought into “the old guard” with Andy using the cliche of “We’re all you’ve got,” something that, in Nile’s case, is quite far from the truth. Nevertheless, Nile struggles with the decision to join this fraternity of assassins only insofar as she is initially in aggressive denial, then is briefly defiant against Andy before simply accepting her new role as the recipient of exposition. We barely see her grapple with the concept of forever leaving her entire life behind—there is no time for that.
The Old Guard is stylishly directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, but it struggles to get off the ground due to the script’s inability to develop these characters in a real meaningful way. There are glimpses of this character development, but this reads as poorly integrated exposition rather than genuine emotional stakes given to these characters. That said, the film is engaging in short bursts that act to hold your attention to the end; but it is hard not to imagine how much more engaging it would have been were it all structured more seamlessly.
The Old Guard: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)