The Old Guard (2020)
★ / ★★★★
For a movie that involves immortal mercenaries, it is incredibly frustrating that “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novels and screenplay by Greg Rucka, only takes off during the final act. The majority of the picture is a dirge: philosophical musings galore about what it means to live forever, having to endure seeing loved ones get old and die, the lack of purpose outside of their identity as a unit, questioning when their lives would end—if ever. When the action dies down, the work is a potent sleeping pill; why isn’t it any more fun?
The answer lies in a screenplay that never stops beginning. We meet the original four mercenaries: Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). We observe them perform a job, particularly at how effective they are in what they do. For them, to shoot a man dead is like exhaling—it is second nature. But before we get to know each individual, a new immortal emerges. She is named Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. Marine who “died” after getting her throat slit during a mission. The movie then becomes a montage of showing the ropes. Cue the Andy the leader bonding with the new recruit. Of course there must be a hand-to-hand combat between them. In a plane, no less. Just to show who’s boss. Guess who wins?
For the most part, I couldn’t help but feel bored during the first half because it feels too much like an origin story. Potentially interesting characters are at play but they are saddled with repetitive dialogue which lacks both dimension and conviction. Notice how the lines uttered tend to describe thoughts and feelings instead of simply showing us. A work being an action film does not justify a reductive approach. As a result, the film fails to become a thoroughly enveloping experience, a project that feels special, different, or unique every step of the way.
If these aren’t enough to test the patience, the picture is also saddled with flashbacks. While the content of the flashbacks is curious at times—far more intriguing than the five mercenaries sitting around waiting to be captured by men who work for a pharmaceutical company, led by the archetypically evil scientist Merrick (Harry Melling) whose goal is to make billions and prolong human lives… in that order—these are mere asides. Images of centuries past are so eye-catching, at one point I wished that the story, for instance, focused on Andy, her partner Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), and their adventures together. Rescuing women who have been accused of being witches in Salem is far more interesting than mopey immortals in modern times.
Like the dialogue, action scenes are painfully standard. The highly stylized choreography did nothing for me because I felt like I had seen them all before–quick cuts, long takes, sounds of bones being crushed. It works in the “John Wick” sequels because its universe, plot, and main character function on a high level. Here, the energy feels flat. It doesn’t inspire the viewers to want to lean closer to the screen and absorb all that’s happening.
“The Old Guard” is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, but it might as well have been directed by an A.I. that had been fed with the most wan and generic action movies. I felt no purpose in this, no passion, no deep thought or even a modicum of originality. It’s just junk food—not even the tasty kind but one that’s flavorless, leaving a chalky taste in the mouth. It promises a sequel, but the foundation is off to such a rocky start that not one element manages to gain a strong footing. Its frothy decorations are not entertainment but an insult to the intelligence.