History tends to repeat itself. So do action movie plots. THE OLD GUARD (2020) brings both together in a predictable but engaging action film with an ancient twist, starring the increasingly reliable action lead Charlize Theron as an immortal warrior with a conscience.
hat’s right, immortal. THE OLD GUARD’s twist on the band of brothers concept is that this particular group has been formed over centuries of conflicts: from the Crusades to the current Afghan conflict, Theron’s Andromache, or Andy for short, has discovered new immortals through an inexplicable connection, a connection that leads her to a new recruit, Nile (Kiki Lane).
So effectively, it’s TIME BANDITS (1981) meets THE EXPENDABLES (2010), but without the strangeness and corny comedy. Instead, THE OLD GUARD takes its lead group quite seriously in their situation, which is refreshing to see in a cinematic period of quips over character (no offence, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)). No, this is not some Greek tragedy examining the meaning of life and death. But it actually gives Andy, Nile and the others a chance to feel the adverse effects of living beyond their friends and family.
But they are trapped within a fairly generic plot. Despite having all of the time in the world, THE OLD GUARD weirdly sticks to the present day with a dastardly businessman (Harry Melling) looking to catch that immortality and turn it into a medicinal treatment for profit. What starts as a cool concept falls victim to a story that wants to turn that concept into a plot goal, instead of a film like EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014), which uses it to invigorate the storytelling.
Therefore, the characters are ultimately what spike our interest, and it helps that everyone here, bar an underused Chiwetel Ejiofor, brings their action a-game. Theron is a brooding badass but she does dig deep for some emotional character moments. Plus, her dedication to the stuntwork continues to impress after her efforts in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) and Atomic Blonde. Then there’s relative newcomer KiKi Layne (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)), who narrowly avoids the recruit stereotype, imbuing her with a persistent attitude that gives her real agency in the action sequences.
Plus, it’s refreshing for a film to make any effort to avoid exposition. When the film starts, you’re awaiting the Theron monologue, disclosing the secrets of some secret society that has lived for generations. And yet, while we get a slither of voiceover, it’s not to explain the concept or history of the group to us. No, that’s etched through exchanges of dialogue in which our characters express themselves through brief glimpses into their past. How refreshing to have a little mystery in a high-concept action film.
The JOHN WICK (2014) effect is practically a cliché in choreographed action scenes these days, and THE OLD GUARD stays true to what current fans want. Yes, some of the editing is occasionally choppy and the camera sticks a bit too close to our leads. But largely, this is the same martial arts/military manoeuvre marriage that we’ve come to expect nowadays, and it works. Not because it is familiar, but because we’ve been sold on the camaraderie of the group: when they team up to take out a room of agents, it feels believable and we care about their outcomes.
THE OLD GUARD does all of the simple stuff right. Moreover, despite the generic plot and missed potential of its time-hopping themes, THE OLD GUARD gives enough time to develop its collection of killer samaritans that we buy into their fight. And that fighting looks and feels great, inspired by the filmmaking style that is so popular nowadays. So props to director Gina Prince-Bythewood and star Charlize Theron: THE OLD GUARD actually feels like a Netflix film worth revisiting.