2020 | rated R | starring Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Chiwetel Ejiofor | directed by Gina Prince-Blythwood | 2 hrs 5 mins |
Giving a peak behind the curtain here, I have a method to my star scores that helps frame a movie in context and keeps me from being overly enthusiastic and over-scoring something I get excited about. These line up most of the time, but every once in a while a movie comes along that is admittedly flawed or unoriginal and yet despite it’s flaws I still kind of love it. It happened with the 3-star Ready or Not, a flawed movie that I love and have only grown to appreciate more with repeat viewings. It might happen again with The Old Guard – a well-made, better-than-average, action movie that scratched that summer movie itch in a year when we didn’t get a summer movie season.
Charlize Theron continues padding her Mad Max, Atomic Blonde action movie resume with another role that puts her in the very top class of current female action stars (with Mila Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale and Scarlett Johansson). Theron plays Andy, the leader of a group of mercenaries for hire who are the best of the best at what they do because of one little cheat – for reasons that they don’t even know, they’re immortal. That’s your high concept premise. Watching unkillable superhumans beating on each other would be one thing, but it’s the way Old Guard approaches immortality and tells it’s story that makes it really work.
It starts out pretty typically. It recalls the last Skydance movie I saw, Gemini Man where Will Smith’s globe-trotting ace assassin looked mortality in the face of his own young clone. The team gets recruited by a client, a wealthy benefactor named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue a kidnapped child, but he’s set them up and their regenerative abilities are caught on camera which he turns around and tips off the Merrick pharmaceutical company, which under the nose of it’s legacy owner (Harry Melling, giving the most interesting corporate weasel performance in a long line of movie corporate weasel villains) plots to kidnap the team and bottle their regenerative abilities. Now we have an interesting conflict: heroes who have potentially saved countless lives with their immortality vs the opportunity for medical science to find out what makes them tick and use it to end disease and suffering around the world. It’s such a compelling idea that the movie has to make young Merrick an over-the-top sadist to keep him in in the villain role.
The ideas don’t end there. Meanwhile in Afghanistan a soldier named Nile (Kiki Lane, If Beale Street Could Talk) survives a mortal wound and winds up on Andy’s radar. An audience surrogate who comes to terms with immortality, Nile takes a bit to gel into the movie. Director Gina Prince-Blythwood (Love and Basketball) treats this film seriously where another may have played it for shlock. The over 2 hour running time allows for moments where it breathes, characters can regroup and we learn wild things about Andy’s life during the Crusades and the Middle Ages. Best of all, The Old Guard has a second act. It’s a call back to a 90s action movie, a time before 2010 when action movies didn’t just cram a set-up into a protracted 3rd act battle. Time is taken to explore character motives, their different takes on their own mortality and their relationships – a scene where Old Guard fighter Joe (Marwan Kenzari) expresses his feelings for his immortal life partner Nicky (Luca Marinelli) absolutely brings down the house. It’s all these little touches that Prince-Blythwood saves from the cutting room floor that give the movie it’s satisfying backbone. It’s why the payoff action set pieces – Theron charging her way through swarms of enemies with a double-ended battle axe – are so much fun. The movie does a great job conveying her power, not just as a fighter but as a person both burdened and gifted with centuries of knowledge.
The Old Guard is a movie that gets better as it goes, building as it’s characters both come together and double-cross each other, culminated in a terrific set piece atop a London highrise and one of the coolest Big Bad deaths I’ve seen in a long time. Yes, there are flaws here. This movie is chalk full of studio action movie tropes: a team of “the best” mercenaries for hire (like a good version of 6 Underground). The characters are fairly 1-note, using the studio tactic of giving each group member a personality quark instead of a full blown character. Then there is Theron, who kills in the fight scenes, but plays Andy like an Emo Doctor Who, brooding, dry and tired.
There is a straight-forward back to basics quality to The Old Guard that I really loved. It explores it’s premise in intriguing ways, and stretches the limits of it’s bone-broken characters in creative directions to build a fully formed adventure. It’s the first movie, Netflix or otherwise, that I’ve seen recently where the unresolved plot threads didn’t feel like cynical sequel bait, but opportunities to more fully explore this world. I would actually welcome a sequel.