Review: The Old Guard

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Stars: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts

What is the strange draw of seeing our favourite actors buy it violently time and again? In recent years we’ve been encouraged to watch with glee as Tom Cruise died over and over in Edge of Tomorrow. For Happy Death Day, newcomer Jessica Rothe went through the same frequently-hilarious punishment. Meanwhile, if you check the viewer ratings for most of your favourite shows, aggregate high scores tend to land on ‘event’ episodes in which major characters meet untimely ends. Hell, Game of Thrones ran with this so hard that it eventually lost all meaning.

There’s a darkness in us that gets kicks from these shock-and-awe moments. Hollywood and its stars are immortalised on film; the celebrity gods of our times. Perhaps these kill-happy indulgences allow us some semblance of equality again? It might be make-belief, but even the immortals among us can die, making us a little less helpless.

Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts and rising star KiKi Layne are the latest beautiful people ready to die over and over and over for our amusement. New to Netflix and based on a series of graphic novels The Old Guard follows the exploits of a small group of Immortals. Led by Andy (Charlize Theron), this crack-team of peace-keeping unkillables discover a fifth member in Nile (KiKi Layne), a marine whose neck is slashed, yet she lives. Nile is our entry-point into the group

Gina Prince-Bythewood has impressed before (her Beyond The Lights is a cult favourite in the truest sense; those who know… know). Still, The Old Guard suffers from it’s straight-to-streaming delivery. Though it’s locales traverse the globe, production values are high and its top billed names are tried, tested and true presences, it feels dreadfully hurt by the small screen. There’s little urgency to it, ultimately giving the feel less of a relocated blockbuster and more of a high ticket-price TV pilot.

The trappings are also, unfortunately, tired and dull. SWAT teams inching around buildings with guns feature repeatedly. See also run-down safe houses and bad corporate labs. In addition it’s distractingly funny how hard Schoenaerts’ Booker looks to have been styled after Marvel’s Steve Rogers (out of costume, of course). I guess Chris Evans was busy. Elsewhere, with such inimitable heroes, the story’s antagonists present as a particularly sorry twosome. Chiwetel Ejiofor looks pained and bored; Harry Melling more often simply grates. I guess when your good guys are effectively unkillable, your bad guys are bound to suffer.

It’s not all bad news. In spite of it’s shortcomings, Prince-Bythewood’s film is eminently watchable, buoyed early on thanks to a slinky score from Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran and some choice cuts of source music. KiKi Layne – so good for Barry Jenkins in If Beale Street Could Talk – finds herself in a very different type of movie here and displays commendable wherewithal. This gal’s versatile. Theron – saddled with a lot of exposition beholden to a silly premise – still takes her work seriously. She’s enjoying herself on this one, too. The performance is loose and that sense of fun comes out in the work. And the villains, while dull, present a timely debate on the ethics of medical research; something quite pertinent given our current crisis.

A question that haunts the narrative is “why me?”. What force deigned to grant Nile membership of such an exclusive club? Thankfully, she isn’t any kind of ‘chosen one’. Her specialness is arbitrary and mysterious, chiming with the randomness of evolution and the chaos of nature. It rejects the mythic grandeur of a ‘destiny’ narrative. This choice vaguely resembles the promising off-ramp trajectory of The Last Jedi before J.J. Abrams crash-landed Star Wars back in the incestuous safety of it’s roots.

The Old Guard doesn’t wallow in soul-searching, but it does acknowledge it. Refreshingly, the psychological ramifications of coolly offing bad guys is addressed head-on. The weight of a life taken, even in the service of ‘good’ is worth commenting on. In the process, these characters are allowed to feel a little more human again. Dying over and over suddenly isn’t so much fun anymore. It’s an ouroboros of trauma. Their scars may heal, but the memories remain.

Then there’s the low-key landmark hidden in plain sight. The other two Immortals – Joe (Marwen Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) – are an openly gay couple whose sexuality isn’t nearly as important as the fact of the bond between them. On this front, The Old Guard frankly embarrasses the timidity of the Marvel behemoth and it’s sheepish nods to representation.

Being alive – regardless of how long – is an endurance race. The Old Guard places importance on those you share it with and how precious it is when someone else understands you.

 

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