While Charlize Theron is well versed in adapting graphic novels for the big screen with her work of David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which has a rumoured sequel in early development, The Old Guard feels vastly different, an action film with fantasy elements that wants to feel timeless despite a modern look and feel but all it really manages is to turn an interesting premise and collection of characters into a group of mindless mercenaries, a collective of automated hitmen whose justification, mentality or drive are lost in a continuous sequence of poorly edited action moments, rushed storytelling and bitter dialogue.
Following four centuries old warriors with incredible healing abilities making them almost indestructible, The Old Guard mainly follows Andy (Theron), the eldest of the group and also their leader. When a newly discovered new recruit Nile (Kiki Layne) learns of her power for the first time, Andy finds herself introucing her to an entirely new world but also protecting her from the one she once had, all while being hunted by a group out to exploit the powers she cannot explain.
What comes across as a wide reaching premise here feels narrow, despite some attempts to get to the core of what ‘immortality’ does to the psyche, this really boils down to a cookie cutter revenge story masked as one about fractured family. While Andy is a force to be reckoned with thanks to Theron, who gives a wise yet emotionally dulled performance, one in keeping with Andy’s jaded personality it never adds the wrinkles to a character fleshed out through pointless, glimpses to a past that tells you next to nothing about a person who writer Greg Rucka clearly wants us to empathise with without ever explaining her supposed pain outside of some clumsy sequel set-up, which would prove effective if it wasn’t so manipulative.
As an opening chapter in a pre-conceived trilogy, The Old Guard takes the same approach as the opening Riddick film Pitch Black by telling a closed off story to connect you to Andy and her fellow eternals Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). While by the ending of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film you have a decent handle on who these people are, it isn’t due to successful storytelling or an impressive ride, it ultimately comes down to poor characterisation. Booker is a mourning father, Nicky and Joe are star crossed lovers and Nile is the new girl, figuring out her place in the world, just like any young woman in the late 20s, only this time with more dying. The Old Guard takes its initially fascinating characters, full of untold nuance and backstory and boils them down to one note clichés, ones that would be easy to accept in any action film not trying to take itself quite as seriously.
Constantly wallowing in self-pity and bleak, black surroundings, Andy and her collective embrace the melodrama surrounding them, even at one point taking some much needed time out to wax poetic about their sordid pasts in an actual dark, dank cave. It’s all acompanied by set-pieces that flash by in an instant, giving glimpses of the battle hardened saviors Rucka seems desperate to convince us they are but the rapid editing, poor lighting and needlessly flashy close up combat makes these moments of escape from the doom and gloom of their reality far too brief.
The closing climax, shot entirely in the light of day, proves to be the films best moment as Prince-Bythewood lets her stunts speak for themselves, extending takes without resorting to Bourne-esque editing, zooming out so that each wound and kick can be seen and felt, highlights the kind of film The Old Guard wanted to be, unfortunately audiences have to sit through a depressing and rarely inventive mess to get to that point. It does inspire hope for the future but as a film on its own, this is not the enduring image of a limitless story that everyone thought it was.