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Review: The Old Guard – “Fast-paced and graphic“

The Old Guard is a fantasy action thriller starring Charlize Theron, who of late has become somewhat of an action star with recent credits such as Fast & Furious 8, Atomic Blonde, and of course, Mad Max: Fury Road to her name.

The Old Guard follows the story of a team of immortal mercenaries who have for centuries secretly fought to protect humankind from straying too far down various dark paths. Set in the modern-day, the team is double-crossed and risk being exposed to the world by organisations who wish to exploit their immortality for monetary gain under the guise of pharmaceutical research to benefit the whole of mankind. The team must embark on a dangerous mission to protect their secret and continue on their quest.

From the first scene where we are introduced to these immortal mercenaries, it all feels very by the numbers and pedestrian in terms of plotting and character development. Andy, Charlize Theron’s character, eats the sweet pastry Baklava. That’s her ‘thing’, apparently. Other than that there is not much more to be said about her character other than she is very, very old, grumpy, and stares into the distance while allowing other characters to deliver vast chunks of exposition to us.

There is a golden rule in writing which states you should ‘show and not tell’. Unfortunately, The Old Guard spends most of its downtime breaking this rule. It doesn’t assume much in the way of intelligence among its audience. Backstory flashback scenes should be sufficient on their own, but the writers felt the need to have peripheral characters explain those scenes as they play out. We are quite aware of what is happening thank you, we are watching it. It gives the impression the film does not believe in its own internal logic. As a result, sections of the film feel like the opening repeated sequence of TV shows that gave a weekly explanation of their premise, like The A-Team or the 70s version of The Incredible Hulk.

The action sequences are fast-paced and graphic. As soon as the fighting starts, the cinematography goes into hand-held ‘Bourne’ mode, which gives the action kinetic energy. It’s also over the top and will be welcomed if you like your protagonists to needlessly somersault their opponents in order to throw them over their shoulders or shoot someone in the face at close range, clearly killing them only then to flip them over as a final ‘super bonus kill move’. If you are still genuinely entertained by the game ‘Street Fighter’ boy, are you in for a treat. Most modern audiences are accepting of such over the top action when the choreography doesn’t overshadow the fight itself. For example, the superb staircase fight sequence in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War or the rescue and car chase scene in Netflix’s recent Extraction. The Russo Brothers have very much raised the bar when it comes to filming close quarter combat scenes. Much of the action on show here feels over-choreographed and characters keep pausing for a quick ‘hero nod’ or balletic sword flip as they stare at something out of shot, getting their pout on. They were clearly aiming for John Wick but only achieved Equilibrium.

There is little character development other than some very heavy tropes that feel tired and picked from a pinboard of ‘character post-it notes’. The new to all this immortality character, Nile played by If Beale Street Could Talk’s Kiki Layne is a ‘good soldier’. We know this because she tells her squad to ‘be respectful’ as they enter a home in Afghanistan fully armed, looking to interrogate the people inside. I’m not joking. We know Harry Potter’s Harry Melling is the villain because a) He’s British and b) He’s the CEO of ‘the big pharma company’. None of the characters appear to have discernible arcs to travel through. As we find them, is pretty much how we leave them. The only questions being, which ones will die and how long does this go on for?

THE OLD GUARD (2020) – (L to R) Marwan Kenzari as Joe, Matthias Schoenaerts as Booker, Charlize Theron as Andy, Luca Marinelli as Nicky, Kiki Layne as Nile.
Photo Credit: AIMEE SPINKS/NETFLIX ©2020

I am aware that expecting some reasonable character development in a film about immortal mercenaries, appears to be asking a great deal and stretching it. But in any film, you need the audience to care what happens to at least some of the characters. The only two that came anywhere close to this were Marwan Kezari’s Joe and Luca Marinelli’s Nicky, two of the immortals who also happen to be centuries-old partners. Indeed, the stand out scene in the film belonged to them. When tied up in the back of a van, surrounded by ‘baddies’ Joe explains to them why Nicky is not simply just his ‘boyfriend’. That one short scene had more humanity and character in it than the rest of the whole film put together and it’s great to see LGBTQ characters front and centre in a high profile action film that were not apologised for or there simply because of their sexuality. A refreshing and welcome change, particularly in a gun heavy genre. But otherwise, characters felt paper thin and poorly realised.

The Old Guard also feels like a great opportunity missed in terms of world-building. We are given the premise of immortal mercenaries, only to have no fun with it whatsoever. The film takes itself far too seriously and spends too much time dourly explaining exposition rather than enjoying itself riffing on the premise. The glimpses we are given into the characters’ pasts are all too fleeting. Take Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 film Highlander as an example. Forget the awful sequels and TV series spawned from it. Highlander managed to have a great deal of fun with the idea of immortals through time. There is an amusing flashback duel at dawn scene that takes place in 1700s England. The immortal is repeatedly run through with a sword on an English common and unable to fight back because he is still drunk from the previous night and his wig keeps slipping down over his eyes making him laugh. It’s a throw-away scene, but it allows us to have some fun. If you are smiling along with a character, you are caring about them and you become ever so slightly invested in what happens to them. This never happens in The Old Guard. The world is severe and oh so serious. When you have such a fun sounding premise and never riff on it, the lack of humour becomes tedious.

It is great to see female and LGBTQ characters take front and centre in action-heavy films such as The Old Guard, but it does very much feel like a great opportunity wasted. It is a film that will have many fans and will no doubt go on to build a successful franchise. But there needs to be a great deal more attention paid to world-building, character development, and just simply having fun with the premise for it to become anything more than the digital equivalent of what used to be straight to video or DVD.

The Old Guard is out now on Netflix.

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