Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling. Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood.
The release of the Netflix film The Old Guard raises an interesting question. Should you be favourable to a film that shows diversity, even if the film itself is not all that?
The Old Guard is an action fantasy film about a group of immortal warriors who find themselves hunted down by a pharmaceutical billionaire, one whose mission is to unlock the code to immortality.
The film marks Netflix’s big foray into action blockbuster territory, with Gina Prince-Bythewood directing, having previously cut her teeth with more indie fare like Disappearing Acts, Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights, she makes the jump from indie to blockbusting.
Despite a promising cast and a great concept, the glaringly obvious problem with the film is that it really feels like a prologue, despite being two hours long. This is the fault of a woeful script by Greg Rucka, adapting his own comic book and showing that just because you can write comics doesn’t mean you can write movies. The whole film is filled with flat, badly written dialogue and isn’t very well paced at all. The whole thing is also preoccupied with setting up the lore of the film, which really could have been done in a fun prologue, maybe in comic book form.
To her credit, Prince-Bythewood knows how to direct, and when it comes to the character moments she gets it perfectly. A scene where the soldiers initiate newcomer Nile by telling her the history of our enigmatic hero is very well shot, and builds the growing tension of who this noble warrior is. However, unlike, say, Cathy Yan jumping into the action genre with Birds of Prey, Prince-Bythewood doesn’t really use that much style for the action set pieces — a fight on a plane which could be a fun stunt-centric sequence feels rather flat and uninspired.
That’s not to say the action is bad, it’s just painfully standard and lacking any invention, and that’s what this film would really need to set it apart. Given its starring actor, that makes for quite a letdown.
Charlize Theron is the enigmatic hero Andy, she also produces the film, this marks yet another of her fantastic action roles that without a franchise to her name has really put her down as one of the strongest genre stars of recent years. Despite her full commitment to her stoic leader role it feels demotivate of Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road, the quiet aloof type might work well in the genre but at a certain point it feels like Theron isn’t being tested enough.
It’s fortunate she has KiKi Layne to bounce off of as newcomer to the world Nile Freeman, who here shows that even she has the chops to pull off fairly bad dialogue should not be understated. Together they make an interesting dynamic of a rookie and the old hat, but the screenplay doesn’t offer anything for the two to really sink their teeth into.
There is something good in the form of a gay subplot between Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli, both showing a history of love together that comes through with minimal screen time. Kenzari also shows just how ill-served by the Aladdin remake he was, here with only a handful of scene, shows off his comedic ability, his tender nature and his action ability. It should also be said that while Harry Melling’s villain is terribly derivative of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, Chiwetel Ejiofor manages to bring a gravitas to the fairly one-dimensional role, and with a few lines manages to remind us why he is the actor he is.
In the end, the film is truly a mixed bag of unfulfilled potential, stopping well short of what could be. If this is to start a franchise, or a series, and given it’s straight on Netflix with no other competition, it may well be a success for the service, and perhaps the next one can have a less lore-heavy outing. Until then, it’s a perfectly fine way to spend two hours.