A review of The Old Guard
Though COVID-19 has seemingly shuttered the multiplexes, the time-honored institution of the summer blockbuster has yet to be slain. In typical fashion (or at least typical for the past decade and change), one of this year’s blockbusters supplies a decent helping of comic book action. Adapted from the Image Comics series of the same name, The Old Guard is the story of a band of unkillable warriors who act as pricey guns-for-hire. All is changed when a new immortal awakens and they find themselves in the crosshairs of those wishing to steal and sell their secret to everlasting life. There is a catch to these warriors’ invincibility; the immortals technically aren’t immortal, as they can suddenly cease healing from mortal injuries and die. The Old Guard, like its characters is neither perfect nor divine. While it makes for an action-packed and emotional character study, The Old Guard suffers from a myriad of structural issues that keep this film from attaining true immortality.
The Old Guard starts out incredibly. From the very beginning, the audience is taken on an engrossing journey following the four members of the titular ‘Old Guard’. They are a group of mercenaries consisting of Andy (Charlize Theron), an ancient Greek warrior who’s the eldest of the group, Joe (Marwan Kenzari), a Muslim man as old as the Middle Ages who fell in love with the Italian Crusader Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) a Frenchman who fought for Napoleon. Everything changes when the four are outed as immortals by their latest client, James Copley. Soon after, they psychically link to the newest immortal, a young U.S. marine named Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne). The four race to bring Nile into the fold before she, too, makes the world aware of their eternal existence. The only problem; once Nile is found and brought into the fold, the film suffers for it.
At times, the events onscreen slow to a meandering crawl. Plot threads are introduced and sometimes abandoned, and the narrative onscreen seems more concerned with the events that took place before the primary plot than the primary plot itself. By the time the second half of The Old Guard happens, the rest of the film follows this pattern, seemingly purposelessly holding the narrative in place far longer than welcome, while only barely advancing in fits and starts. This problem extends to The Old Guard’s dialogue, as much of the film is padded out by nearly every character onscreen info-dumping their backstories at every opportunity, rather than allowing their actions and traits speak for them. This may be a failure in adaption; The Old Guard did begin its life as a comic book. This form of narrative delivery works well in comics, as dialogue can be read more quickly than it can be listened to if spoken aloud. It doesn’t work well in a movie, as it feels as though we the audience are being lectured about the motivations of each character rather than watching these complex stories progress naturally. It doesn’t help that the dialogue itself is often time hampered by stilted and sometimes emotionless acting.
While The Old Guard has its fair share of outstanding performances, it also has its fair share of bland and often times wooden acting. The biggest offenders in this movie come in the forms of Booker and Niles. Schoenarts’s Booker seems only capable of expressing one emotion; tired frustration. While I was annoyed by this, the performance, while bland, is unobtrusive. Booker (while he should be one of the leads), is often relegated to the background.
Nile is the more infuriating of the two. Nile is the newest of the immortal warriors, a character meant to act as an audience surrogate. She seems to exist to answer the questions the audience is asking; who are these immortal warriors? How old are they? How did they attain immortality? Unfortunately, Kiki Layne’s performance makes Nile a poor audience surrogate. While initially billed as this complex, emotionally driven young Marine with a strong sense of justice, all these character traits fade into nothingness once Nile is introduced to the rest of the immortals. Audience surrogates are intended to be the most interesting of characters, as the audiences are introduced to the intricacies of the story’s world through their eyes. Audience surrogates are characters audiences care about, as they exist in a way that allows audiences to see themselves in that role. Unfortunately, neither narratively nor through Layne’s lackluster performance, is the audience actually given a reason to care about what happens to Nile. Nile instead becomes a blank slate, an emotionless vessel to be filled by the motivations of everyone around her, especially Andy. Layne’s acting doesn’t help remedy this narrative issue either; her performance left me literally screaming for Nile to at least show the slightest bit of emotion. This isn’t to say that Layne’s performance is absolutely terrible. She merely suffers the same problem as the rest of this film does; a decline in quality during the second half.
But all these flaws pale in comparison to the nails on chalkboard that was the soundtrack. While it did have an orchestral soundtrack, The Old Guard, more often than not, went the pop and EDM route. This, in and of itself, is not a terrible thing (many people enjoy these genres of music). Where the soundtrack failed was in execution. These songs wear out their welcome quickly. They suffer from some of the same problems that the dialogue does, as these songs are often a little too on the nose whenever they are used. Rather than allow the audience to intemperate a scene’s mood, the lyrics in these songs spoon feed the audience the emotions they’re supposed to feel. Not only does this take away from what’s onscreen, as it is quite distracting, it makes what’s on screen seem trite and contrived. When I said these pieces of music overstay their welcome, I meant it quite literally. These songs drag on far after the moments they were appropriate for last.
The Old Guard, however, isn’t lacking in merit. As I had previously mentioned, Charlize Theron’s world weary Andy is one of her best performances to date. She is as much of a joy to watch as her character’s story is interesting. I felt as though she should have been the lead. Also worthy of note are Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli’s characters. Not only is it a rare treat to see overt queer romance in an action movie, Marinelli’s and Kenzari’s realistic romantic chemistry never stops selling it. The Old Guard also supplies a hefty helping of good old fashioned blockbuster action. When I say the action is good, I’m not lying. The actions scenes in this movie strike a perfect balance between frenetic and graceful. Though Andy and her band fight with the fluidity of dancers, The Old Guard doesn’t shy away from the rough and bloody brutality of their actions. Though these crowd-pleasing features exist, they unfortunately did not hold my attention as much as the distractingly mishandled elements do. The Old Guard, like its protagonists, is neither heavenly nor defectless. The Old Guard is, by nature, fundamentally flawed and ultimately loses its immortality because of those flaws. This isn’t to say that it’s a terrible movie; The Old Guard certainly isn’t lacking in substance and interesting characters. It merely fails to use them in an engaging, and ultimately memorable way. The Old Guard, like its characters, is doomed to fade away from, rather than become, a facet of our collective consciousness. But, everything’s gotta die, even summer blockbusters.