What starts off feeling like a Highlander retread develops into a strong, character driven action flick.
The Old Guard takes a while to set up all of its pieces, and at more than two hours in length, it can feel a bit ponderous. Luckily, a strong cast led by Charlize Theron and a good story penned by Greg Rucka, combine to bring Netflix’s latest action film in for a solid landing.
The Old Guard (2020)
An ex-CIA handler (Chiwetel Ejiofor) reaches out to an elite team of operatives to rescue hostages in Sudan. The operation winds up being bait; the handler has learned the secret to the team’s efficiency: they are each ancient warriors who posses near total immortality, led by a legendary warrior, Andromache the Scythian (Charlize Theron).
Intent on discovering who set them up and why, the group is sidetracked when they discover a new immortal has been discovered (Kiki Layne) – an event that has not occurred in centuries.
The Old Guard has a lot of set-up to get through. There are intrigues inside intrigues behind the outing of the immortals. Each character has a detailed history, and unique personality and dynamic in the squad. On top of all this, you have a new character to introduce…and through her, introduce the audience to the premise of the film.
Familiarity almost breeds contempt for The Old Guard. The premise and structure of the film feels a lot like Highlander, particularly the series incarnation. A supremely capable warrior takes in a newbie and teaches them the rules of the immortality game, all while meeting old friends and rivals, and dodging the mechanations of shady cabals. When the first big fight scene has our gun-wielding heroes all pull out swords, I nearly rolled my eyes through the back of my head.
Now I’m not saying The Old Guard is NOT remarkably close to a stealth remake of Highlander with Charlize Theron in the lead. I will say, however, that The Old Guard manages to be engaging despite the obvious similarities.
What really makes the film work is the strong cast, a screenplay that gives them fascinating characters to inhabit, and tons of style care of director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Not only is the film stacked with lavish action pieces that would please fans of John Wick or Atomic Blonde, but it rewards all of the time spent on world building by actually making you care about the characters.
The investment was not automatic; in fact, I felt the characters came close to being stock characters early on. Charlize Theron is getting dangerously close to playing the same world-weary badass over and over. Kiki Layne is a touch too doe-eyed in the beginning. That said, by the end I appreciated the work put into the characters, especially Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) who go from comic relief to a touching portrayal of a couple who’ve been the center of each other’s lives since the Crusades.
It Just Works?
The Old Guard takes a while to grow on you. The first hour had me checking out several times, which is not great. There are also some “action movie logic” bits early that bugged me (the US military just lets somebody drive off in their Humvee after attacking two soldiers, instead of, say, BLOWING IT THE HELL UP?) By the final hour, I was dug in and found it compelling.
I’d imagine Netflix is eyeing a franchise here, and the film provides plenty of directions to go in. More importantly, it leaves you wanting to actually watch it.