Some people love Netflix’s “The Old Guard,” as the film has an 82 percent “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Plotting can get pedestrian here – the stakes feel a little low for a tale encompassing political hotspots like Afghanistan and South Sudan – but well-designed fight sequences never drop their guard for a moment.” writes RT critic Leigh Paatsch of Australia’s Herald-Sun.
“In drawing our attention to who these characters are as opposed to leaning upon the awe-inspiring moves they can pull off, the movie opts to be rich with emotional resonance as opposed to lousy with quips and explosions,” writes Melanie McFarland, another RT critic, of Salon.
This is not high praise for a Certified Fresh movie. Indeed, I theorize that the only reason “The Old Guard” got any praise at all is the profound lack of new releases coming out this year, as the film itself is very forgettable, unless you’ve never watched “X-Men,” “Doctor Who,” “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood,” or any better work of fiction that deals with immortal characters. Because in its purest form, “The Old Guard” is an average action film whose fight sequences look good on the small screen, but would not pass muster when held up against a competent action blockbuster, and its exploration of its immortal characters is very surface level.
And unfortunately, from an action standpoint, “The Old Guard” is less imaginative in the exploration of its people-with-instant-healing-powers premise than even “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
The film follows immortal leader Andromache “Andy” (Charlize Theron), former Napoleonic soldier Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), former Crusade-era Muslim warrior Joe (Marwan Kenzari), former Crusader Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and US Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), the last of whom is the group’s newest member since the 1800s. The group must evade the minions of former CIA Agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is secretly working for Big Pharma CEO and Martin Shkreli-inspired Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to extract the group’s genetic code in order to give the secret to immortality to everyone, but at a price.
Paatsch was absolutely right when he said this film’s plotting was elementary, as the film’s overall story lacks any sense of scale, we don’t know why we should care for these characters or what they want beyond vaguely looking out for each other, and we have no reason to hate the villain other than the fact that he’s greedy and mean, and wants to siphon off the immortals forever. But on the other hand, Merrick legitimately seems interested in studying them to end cancer and other horrible diseases, even though he only wants to do so to enrich himself. While Melling plays an excellent Pharma Bro, it would have been more effective for the filmmakers to flip their roles, with the immortals interesting in donating their genes to cure cancer, and Merrick set on either killing them by destroying every last atom of their bodies, or by incapacitating them and locking them away for centuries (think of how Dracula’s body parts are separated in “Castlevania”) so that he may continue to profit off of the disease.
What breaks the film is it is too vague as to what Andy’s team wants or why they are important. The film tries to make up for this with a very lazy literal wall of exposition, showing articles and fake historic documents showing that they did a lot of good with their immortality, which is a weird juxtaposition. The film tries to argue that the freedom of four to five immortal people is worth more than the literal cure to cancer, and I don’t quite buy it. At the end of the day, Merrick is the film’s villain because he’s rude, greedy and he takes things by force, which is about as elementary a villain as you can get.
Theron has been praised for her performance in this film, and I honestly don’t know why. Her character has no more depth than Kate Beckinsale in “Underworld” or Milla Jovovich in “Resident Evil,” although I admit, Theron is a bit more fun in this film. But her character is still a closed-off action movie stereotype you’ve seen in a million other films, rather than a unique and memorable character that is multi-dimensional.
Layne is fine as the film’s other lead, if only because she’s more relatable than the other members of the cast. When you’re portraying immortal characters like this film does, you have to accept that on some level, their minds will operate on a level even the oldest humans will never be able to understand. But that is not an excuse to make them boring. By all means, there are ways to do them right. X-Men’s Wolverine is probably the most apt example, as his healing factor is essentially what “The Old Guard”‘s immortals have. He’s experienced great loss, so he uses his powers to self medicate with smoking and alcohol, and he’s very disillusioned by the world. But even though he knows he’ll probably outlive everyone he gets close to, that doesn’t stop him from begrudgingly enjoying the world.
Or the Doctor from Doctor Who. They’ve lived for thousands of years, having mostly human companions. The Doctor compartmentalizes their shame, misery, and sense of loss by living in the moment, but occasionally flashes of great and profound pain break through.
Or the many immortal characters on “Fullmetal Alchemist”, who are driven insane by their long life and power, which is fueled by literally taking the lives of others, and believe that they are gods.
“The Old Guard” has immortal characters, but brings nothing new and interesting to the table. This film gets praise for competent action sequences you can see that only occasionally take advantage of its characters’ immortality, which is a shame. The movie looks bland and forgettable, and really lacks style of any kind. At several moments, I thought I was watching an action film from 2005, not only because of its barebones plot, but because I found its action very generic and flat.
To me, great action is when choreography, stylistic filming and sound design come together in a way that every punch and kick has an impact, which creates tension on screen. You can see and follow the action in “The Old Guard”, but it’s not creative, there’s too much stuff flying on screen for you to care, and Theron and company are given super-human strength and agility at times (the movie says it’s from learning to fight throughout the years), which is not necessarily a scene breaker, but when they only go up against normal, human soldiers, it completely breaks any sense of tension or investment you’d have in these fights. If the film was going to feature ridiculously overpowered protagonists, it should’ve given Theron and company foes of equivalent ability to fight, because seeing them rip through legions of normal human soldiers is quite boring.
In my opinion, “The Old Guard” is the most overrated thing on Netflix right now. It gets praise for doing the bare minimum, and at times, feels very dated. It’s a very OK time, and I suspect that it’s spot as the #1 trending movie on Netflix will be short-lived.
“The Old Guard” gets a 5/10