You don’t need to have read the comic that the new Netflix action movie The Old Guard is based on. Just watch the first five minutes and you’ll know literally everything that’s going to happen.
Starring Charlize Theron in Fury Road mode, The Old Guard streams on Netflix July 10. It opens with an elite team of asskickers recruited by the CIA to sneak into a foreign militia compound — you know the drill: They do that thing where they crab-walk along walls with their assault rifles jammed up against their faces and then kind of whip around corners. They shoot a guy and then lower his body to the ground while frowning into the darkness. Yes, The Old Guard is assembled out of the moldiest old action and spy movie cliches.
The grizzled leader goes against her own rules for one last job. Men with beards and sunglasses stride through African markets saying things like “Yesterday afternoon local” and “Last overfly confirmed personnel on site.” Hummers speed across the desert, then we cut to London where a CEO in a hoodie goes straight from a press conference to barking “Find them!” at some mercs in a glass corridor. People in body armor frown, a lot. An obvious traitor is obvious.
If you’re being charitable, you could argue writer Greg Rucka is subverting action movie tropes in a script adapted from his own comic (co-created by artist Leandro Fernandez). Because there’s big fantasy twist: the globetrotting mercenaries have swords. Because they’re frickin’ immortal.
The trouble is, The Old Guard’s twist doesn’t really twist the action. Stabbing and pirouetting, Theron’s bulletproof badass isn’t really any different fromor her own stylish assassin in . The identikit evil CEO could be straight out of or . The action is slick and fast-paced, but you’ve seen it all a million times before. How can something with this much CGI blood spatter be so bloodless? Are we really supposed to get excited about an invincible hero wading through yet another crowd of faceless stuntmen in tactical gear?
I know, I know, it’s dumb B-movie entertainment. But the real crime is, this is one of those flicks where the backstory is waaaay more interesting than what’s on screen. Brief flashbacks and passing mentions hint at a history of witches in iron coffins and a pair of rival crusaders who keep killing each other until they fall in love. Which sounds awesome.
To be fair, The Old Guard does try to pack some emotional punch amid the hackneyed action. After yet another whirling gun fu sequence leaves dead SWAT guys littering the floor, director Gina Prince-Bythewood keeps the camera lingering on Theron’s face as she contemplates the endless horror of her extended life. Each of the undying heroes faces the pain of immortality in their own way, and the diversity of the group and their experience is stirring. This leads to the film’s most genuinely emotional moment as Marwan Kenzari delivers a speech so heartfelt it almost single-handedly elevates the film above others of its kind.
The emotional dilemma of eternity troubles the latest recruit to the ranks, played by KiKi Layne. Layne’s character provides one of the few intriguing and surprising moments in the film when Theron hands her a gun. Obviously every movie has a moment where the screenwriting software inserts a falling-out between heroes — that’ll be the “refusing the call” portion of the classic hero’s journey — but generally the reluctant recruit comes to embrace redemptive violence in the end. Here, for an intriguing moment it looks like our hero rejects the violent path, opting out of the action movie as a concept. Now that would be a great subversion.
Obviously it doesn’t last. We’re soon back to business as usual, double-tapping guys in balaclavas and delivering speeches about the sanctity of life while at the same time casually massacring dozens upon dozens of random guys.
Yeah, you know the drill. The Old Guard is kinda fun. But mostly it’s same old, same old.
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