Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne prove there’s life in The Old Guard (2020) yet.
Netflix’s latest franchise starter initially does a good job of conveying the experiential tedium of immortality as it introduces us to a band of immortal warriors who have been making their way through history acting as soldiers of fortune but after a sluggish start, it manages to deliver a thrilling finale and sets the stage for a sequel which should be able to have a bit more fun now the heavy expositional lifting has been done.
When Andy (Theron) and her immortal team come to the attention of an ambitious and ruthless biotechnology firm run by Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) he engages former CIA operative Copely (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to set them up. Simultaneously, the miraculous recovery of US Marine Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne) and a shared dream brings the team a new recruit, and mortal danger.
“The Old Guard” is very much a film of two halves and while there are plenty of action scenes throughout, the film struggles to establish any real stakes or peril, an understandable problem when your protagonists are immortal revenants. Though not invulnerable, their unexplained abilities manifest in rapid healing and, when necessary, resurrection. As the film unfolds, it emerges that their immortality is not eternal and can fade with time, making the appearance of Nile suggest we may be looking at a more Slayer-type set up than something more akin to “Highlander”.
There are a few elements which help to raise the movie above the generic action fare it so often flirts with being. One is the refreshingly diverse approach it takes to its character’s sexualities without needing to make it a pivotal plot point or some kind of harbinger of tragedy (something it trolls the audience with towards the latter stages of the movie) and the other is the calibre of cast assembled, particularly Theron herself and Kiki Layne. Both deliver iconic performances, sparking off and against each other as the world weary centuries old veteran and the newly minted and desperately reluctant immortal.
The action scenes are superbly choreographed and brutally executed and you’ll feel every punch and kick and throw as the team fight for their lives and their anonymity. Melling – more famous as Harry Potter’s odious cousin Dudley Dursely in the “Harry Potter” movies – makes for a milquetoast villain, though, lacking any real sense of menace or malevolence and never really feeling like a credible threat to someone like Theron’s Andy. It’s a miscast of quite staggering proportions for a film that seems to have assembled the rest of its cast with such care.
If anything, “The Old Guard” feels like the start of a franchise that will need to slip the surly bonds of its beginnings to reach its full potential and in that respect, it reminds me vaguely of the humble beginnings of the “Fast and Furious” movies before they found their way to billion-dollar box office success.
A stronger story and a much more formidable villain are needed but on the strength of this, there’s more than enough life in “The Old Guard” yet.