The Old Guard – Movie Review

No one is going to claim that The Old Guard presents Charlize Theron’s with her greatest acting challenge–she plays the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries who travel around the world killing people–but this new Netflix action-thriller is a surprisingly effective and entertaining piece of filmmaking from Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Prince-Bythewood is an unlikely suspect to herald in one of the year’s better action films, given her most notable credit is the excellent if completely different romantic drama Love & Basketball, which was released two decades ago. And yet here we are in this pandemic-ravaged year desperate for quality content, especially on the action front. 

Pandemic aside, The Old Guard boasts solid credentials: some strong action sequences, likeable characters, and a well-executed concept that balances its sci-fi elements within an otherwise grounded story.

While Theron may get top billing, KiKi Layne (who was incredible in the criminally overlooked If Beale Street Could Talk) is arguably The Old Guard’s star; her character is the new kid on the block, and her evolution throughout the film is its central arc and driving force. Whereas Theron acts as though she did this film for a quick buck and “easy” work (honestly, the whole film just feels slightly beneath her), Layne injects a much-needed sense of urgency and energy into the production.

Its Netflix release aside, The Old Guard feels close to–but not quite–a big budget action film deserving of the theaters. Prince-Bythewood delivers several strong action scenes throughout, culminating in a relatively satisfying climax. I use “strong” and “satisfying” purposefully–these are somewhat vague words that don’t typically land on movie posters for their lack of commitment–because the action, while entertaining, comes a little bit short of jaw-dropping, or exciting, or memorable. They are fun to watch, but a day later there’s not a moment that really stands out or sticks with you.

While there are plenty of action movies that deal with immortality–Underworld, Highlander, and Logan come to mind–The Old Guard presents a refreshing spin on the concept. Based on a graphic novel series by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay), it feels like the beginning of a high-end TV series I’d watch.

The problem, of course, is that Rucka and Prince-Bythewood treat it as the beginning of a TV series rather than a self-contained movie. As entertaining as it is, it feels as though the filmmakers are keeping the really good stuff for a sequel, and that’s no way to kick off a franchise. The villain here (played by Harry Melling, best known as the sniveling Dudley from the Harry Potter series) is utterly bland and forgettable, though the story clearly hints at (and a post-credit scene confirms) a much more compelling baddie to come should the Netflix gods allow. 

The Old Guard is worth watching; it’s entertaining from start to finish and boasts a good cast and decent spectacle. But its unwillingness to go all out, to earn your respect by taking the action to the next level or giving us a compelling villain, holds it back from being a must-see. And that’s a shame.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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