Producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Dan Granger, Charlize Theron, A.J. Dix, Beth Kono and Marc Evans Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenplay: Greg Rucka Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Mirinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anamaria Marinca and Joey Ansah Distributor: Netflix
Viewers hungry for a new superhero movie during the current drought of Marvel and DC summer blockbusters on the big screen may be drawn to this Netflix original adapted by prolific comic book writer Greg Rucka from his own graphic-novel series. In the event, however, sans capes, colorful costumes, outlandish CGI and the usual grab-bag of over-the-top fantastic feats, “The Old Guard,” while directed well enough by Gina Prince-Bythewood, comes across as less a superhero movie than a fairly standard-issue action flick about a bunch of rough-and-tumble SWAT-type soldiers who bring down a malevolent bad-guy with athleticism and firepower; the twist, such as it is, is that they’re ageless and immortal (or at least kind-of, since it appears that at some apparently random point their immortality can simply sputter out).
As constituted at the start, the group has four members. Their leader is the oldest, Andromache, or Andy (Charlize Theron), a Scythian Amazon from the age of ancient Greek heroes. Her companions are Yusuf Al-Kaysani, aka Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicolo di Genova, aka Nicky (Luca Mirinelli), who were on opposite sides during the one of the crusades, fell in love, and have been together ever since, and Sebastian Le Livre, aka Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), a veteran of the Napoleonic wars.
The Guards, who have over the centuries acted as a force for good against evil, has been on hiatus for a while, because Andy is suffering a severe bout of angst, despairing because despite all their efforts, the world continues to get worse rather than better. She’s also still grieving the loss of her long-time colleague Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), whose capture led to a fate worse than death. But she’s persuaded to return to the fray when approached by ex-CIA man James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who asks for her help in rescuing some kidnapped Sudanese schoolgirls.
That mission, however, turns out badly, and things get worse when Steve Merrick (Harry Melling), the head of a Big Pharma firm, comes after the group, intending to extract the chemical secret of their longevity for use in his products. At the same time, however, their number might be increased by the potential addition of Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a brave yet sensitive American soldier who unaccountably survives a fatal wound during her service in Afghanistan. She’s initially reluctant to sign up, but when the immortals are targeted by Merrick, has second thoughts.
“The Old Guard” thus serves not only as an origin story for the existing gang of rough-and-ready do-gooders but also an initiation episode for its idealistic newest recruit. But in neither respect is it terribly engaging. The original team of four isn’t very interesting, with Andy the gruff but svelte bombshell, the Nicky-and-Joe duo the bickering gays and Booker the stolid thinker. Neither Theron nor her three cohorts bring much to these literally comic-book-level characters, who dress in drab dark outfits and mostly wield automatic weapons, though Andy does occasionally take out her mega-axe and swords do appear once in a while. Nile is a more interesting figure, and Layne invests her with a touch of real humanity, but by the end she too is reduced to being a prop in some decently choreographed but rather boring shoot-’em-ups and slugfests.
In all the frantic action, however, there’s hardly any feeling of danger precisely because of the characters’ ability to regenerate over and over again. There’s little at stake when death is but a random. temporary quirk that might, or might not, occur in this century or the next (and, in this outing, appears to be a liability that can somehow be overcome even when one’s immortality apparently has run out). Even Superman is rather dull without kryptonite somewhere in the wings.
On the other side of the good-vs.-evil equation, Merrick is just a typical effete bad-guy, so obviously wicked that it strains credulity that two of the supposedly intelligent characters here could possibility imagine that he has more on his mind than feeding his ego and filling his wallet. Melling oozes British nastiness in the role.
For a non-theatrical release, the movie is technically proficient, with the production design by Paul Kirby, cinematography of Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd and editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire perfectly adequate and the score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran suited to the material. The effects supervised by Sara Bennett are also okay too, if never spectacular.
In the end, though, “The Old Guard” is more average than super, and even the dearth of competitive product in theatres isn’t enough to make it exciting.
Maybe some capes would have helped, after all.