By Harri Knight-Davis, Film and Television, First Year
The Old Guard begins with Andy (Charlize Theron) dead on the floor, while her inner monologue bemoans the never-ending nature of her eternal life. This scene perhaps sums up Netflix’s first foray into superhero territory, as the serious set up leads to a more reflective and perceptive superhero film than your regular MCU offerings.
On the other hand, its morose tone can weigh the film down at times, leaving the viewer wondering why no more fun was had with the concept.
The film centres around centuries-old mercenaries, including the aforementioned leader Andy, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marvan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). They attempt to train new recruit Nile (KiKi Layne) and fight off pharmaceutical boss Merrick (Harry Melling), all while constantly questioning their immortality.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest directorial effort is a departure from her intimate dramas (Love & Basketball (2000), Beyond the Lights (2014)) and borrows more from the John Wick franchise than Spider-Man or Iron Man. The absence of overbearing special effects helps to create a physicality that is missing from lots of CGI heavy blockbusters. This is arguably when the film is most fun.
Whether it is Andy battling through entire combat units with her trademark axe, or her fighting/training her protégé Nile it is always enjoyable to watch. KiKi Layne, star of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), is a big reason for this. Watching her grow into the character is extremely rewarding and her personal journey is the film’s most emotionally tangible element.
However, this enjoyable romp is not without flaws, as some aspects just don’t sit quite as well as others. Arguably the film’s most nagging facet is its constant use of a pop R&B soundtrack over the action instead of a score, thereby distracting the viewer and taking you out of the film.
Although this is frustrating, the film’s biggest problem is its narrow focus on the mundanity of eternal life. With centuries of material available to help mold the characters, very little is used, with most of the down-time spent with the characters in dimly lit rooms or caves. The fairly po-faced screenplay would benefit hugely with some humour injected into it, in order to create a more balanced tone.
The Old Guard excels most when focusing on Andy and Nile, with the film employing the A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018) trope of the seasoned professional mentoring the promising new star. They both deliver in action and in emotion: their relationship is the lynchpin of the film. The supporting cast are more than adequate, but with some dubious character arcs and motivations especially with Schoenaerts’ Booker you can’t help but feel how the film could have been improved with a more charismatic supporting cast.
The film seems most interested in the toll that immortality has on the film’s heroes, and whether the physical and emotional impact is worth it when ‘some good means nothing’ as Andy pessimistically utters. This motif plays out intriguingly and offers suspense, although at times it can feel as if the film is treading over familiar superhero territory, specifically the weight that responsibility has on a superhero—see Spider-Man 2 (2004).
Overall, The Old Guard offers up a welcome alternative from CGI invested superhero films, with Prince-Bythewood’s crisp direction making up for the, at times, clunky script. Where the film fails to reach the emotional heights it is perhaps aiming for, it amends itself with engaging action sequences and two stellar lead performances in Theron and Layne.
Featured: Aimee Spinks / 2020 Netflix, Inc
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