If there’s one thing cinema has sorely missed, it’s the mid-budget beat ’em up flicks of yesteryear. When a bunch of muscled action stars would just kick the hell out of each other between one-liners with an absurd plot tying it all together. Top-notch examples being Commando, Top Gun, and Road House. Classic action films that work simply because all you need sometimes is cool people doing cool sh*t for 2 hours. Acclaimed filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) seems to have adopted this template and given it a twist with The Old Guard. An adaptation of the comic book of the same name, the film follows a group of mercenaries tasked with defending humanity over the past few thousand years. They are threatened when an evil big-pharma exec (evil being a bit redundant in that profession) wants to strip these forever soldiers of their powers and use it for his own malevolent schemes. Lead by Charlize Theron, it’s big, it’s weird, it’s high-concept as f*ck – but it also, unfortunately, doesn’t always follow through on that fun premise.
The Old Guard is packed with quickly cut, high-octane action that recalls those films mentioned earlier (particularly an airplane brawl which is just bonkers), but as the film progresses one can’t help but wonder if there’s a very different movie at the heart of it all that was lost in the chaotic proceedings. Every now and again the film will slow down and come to life in a real way. The history and pain of this world are deeply felt, only to be deflated by a perfunctory pin-drop that leaves one wanting more. One of the main reasons being that the representation in the film is so good, with an LGBT+ couple that feels authentic and fleshed out, making their arcs satisfying and interesting to watch as well as Kiki Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) having a ton of fun kicking ass while finding her way in a world she doesn’t yet understand. There are such fascinating characters at the center of The Old Guard and one can’t help but wish for a film that was more interested in them rather than getting to the next action beat.
Gina Prince-Bythewood makes a very admirable attempt to inject some soul and humanity into the zany proceedings, creating intimate moments where characters contemplate their purpose and the horrors beneath the human desire to live forever. This is accentuated by a very game Charlize Theron who lends the role of Andromache of Scythia (also called Andy) a dark bit of pathos. This is undercut, however, by action choices that hew closer to something like Suicide Squad than Prince-Bythewood’s past work, with frenetic editing and a grating pop soundtrack that feels as if one is watching a few dozen trailers play out. The film picks up vast existential ideas and drops them nearly immediately in favor of these action beats, becoming closer to a more standard action picture, when it really could have been (and what many can almost suspect was intended to be) a lot more than that.
It’s, of course, not fair to assume foul play behind the scenes, especially on Netflix films where the studio has bastioned itself as a place where directors can roam freely with minimal studio interference. What makes the viewer so suspect is when the film reveals its true intentions to be that of every ill-fated blockbuster… becoming a franchise. The Old Guard decides to go the MCU route, laying the groundwork for future sequels and spinoffs, complete with post-credits scenes and an eye-rolling ending which may as well have ended with “The Old Guard will return”.
When all is said and done, it’s hard to know what to make of a film like The Old Guard. One might find themselves liking more of what it tries to be – what it represents on a larger level than the film itself, which undercuts itself constantly with bland action and a sort of Marvelization that so many films have fallen victim to in recent years. In a film with so much talent and conceptual promise, it’s a shame to see the more mature aspirations be completely undermined by a studio’s bottom line.