Sometimes movies function on all cylinders, everything working towards a single goal. Other times—perhaps more often—elements of a film are at odds with each other. These disparate elements may simply not mesh well or they could work actively against one another and wind up tearing the whole thing down. While it appears that Netflix’s new “The Old Guard” is a case of the former, it may actually be the latter.
On the one hand, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new film is a work which offers up seemingly deep discussions about what it means to be alive and what duty we all have to one another. Featuring a group of immortals—Andy (Charlize Theron); Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts); Joe (Marwan Kenzari); Nicky (Luca Marinelli); and newcomer to the band, Nile (KiKi Layne)—we learn of all the good they have done through the centuries. We hear of the missions they take to help those who need it. We are told of how some of those they save, or their descendants, have gone on to save others.
It is an admirable outlook on life and, when coupled with the centuries-long love between Nicky and Joe, it is even better. Even if the characters’ ages are outside the realm of anything to which we can aspire, their ideals and they way they manifest speak to our better natures. Andy may have been on the verge of giving up when we meet her, but that too is entirely relatable.
On the other hand, the movie offers up the most shallow, paper-thin, ridiculous, cartoon version of a pharmaceutical CEO bad guy for the immortals to fight that one can imagine. This man, Merrick (Harry Melling), who has his own personal army, wants the immortals in order to test them and create drugs that would make the world a better place. That would be noble if he didn’t send his paramilitary organization out to try to capture our heroes, an action he takes with the help of ex-CIA agent, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has his reasons but is portrayed as a man far smarter than any of them. It’s also Ejiofor’s Copley who is forced to argue that the anomaly is not Merrick’s company having it’s own army, but any company at this point that doesn’t. In a movie full of exceedingly dumb bits, that one is up there.
Now it is possible that Merrick could just ask if Andy and company would be willing to help out, but then there wouldn’t be (mediocre) action or (more than moderate) violence. It wouldn’t diminish the potential for a sequel, because there is just no way that they were going to leave that out (there’s an entire subplot that has no payoff whatsoever except for “wait until the next film!”), but it would hurt the goings on with this entry.
The effect of this terrible villain, this terrible logic, this terrible silliness, is that it pulls the viewer right out of the story. It causes one to stop and look around and wonder if the discussions being had by the immortals and the ones which they would hope to rouse in the audience are actually deep and meaningful and remotely worthwhile at all. Undeniably, there is greatness in the Joe and Nicky relationship and its ability to thrive through centuries of adversity, but what of the rest of it? Is it all just a lot of foolishness?
The question wouldn’t come up if Prince-Bythewood and the script from Greg Rucka, based on his graphic novel (illustrated by Leandro Fernández) could offer up a cohesive story here, but they don’t. The suspension of disbelief is lost.
“The Old Guard” would end up falling like a house of cards if not for two relationships.
First, as noted, is that of Joe and Nicky. Every time their relationship is discussed, it can’t help but bring a smile to one’s face, particularly when it comes up as the men are facing some sort of evil in their immediate future.
Then, there’s the veteran-neophyte relationship between Andy and Nile. Andy is a warrior, at minimum due to her centuries of fighting for good. Nile, when the movie opens, is part of the US Army and on assignment in the Middle East. She is immediately shown as caring and honorable, which makes her the perfect addition to the immortal troupe. Well, that and her inability to die. Theron hoists the majority of the movie onto her capable shoulders, and is a force to be reckoned with but never given quite enough to do to satisfy those watching.
In the end, what one gets with “The Old Guard” is much more disappointment than anything else. The setup is enjoyable and the immortals are great. The notion of a nefarious person trying to use them is well-worn for a reason, as is Layne as the fish out of water, Nile. But, Merrick is a terrible way to put the well-worn villain into practice and the action moments never succeed as they ought.
The inescapable sense is that this is a two hour movie that feels much more interested in setting up a sequel than being good in and of itself. The movie doesn’t tear itself apart to the point where this critic is uninterested in the sequel, just distressed at what could have been here.
photo credit: Netflix