The premise of immortal warriors fighting throughout the centuries is nothing new, but rarely has it been as unimaginative as Netflix’s “The Old Guard.”
Based on a graphic novel of the same name, Netflix’s latest movie focuses on a group of four unaging, undying soldiers who have dedicated their lives to fighting for causes they deem just. No matter how severely wounded they are, or how much damage they take, they’re always revived within moments with accelerated healing. They simply cannot die, despite often wanting to do so.
The group is led by Andy, played by the wonderful Charlize Theron. She’s the first and oldest of the immortals, living and fighting for so long that she doesn’t even remember when it all began. Andy is haunted by the loss of Quynh, the second oldest immortal and close friend, who was captured in medieval times and dumped at the button of the ocean, where she was fated to drown, revive and drown again for all of eternity. While this subplot is only touched upon briefly in the movie, it offers some sound character development for Andy, and adds depth and stakes to the group. They cannot die, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be hurt — either physically, or through literally centuries of accumulated PTSD.
As the movie begins, it’s been more than 200 years since a new immortal has emerged. In Afghanistan, Kiki Layne’s Nile is killed during an Army operation. Once she revives after having her throat cut in front of her fellow soldiers, she’s treated as a freak and an outcast before being rescued by Andy. Each immortal has a psychic connection between them when they first develop their powers. Nile is recruited to join the group just as they’re betrayed and captured by a pharmaceutical giant, Merrick, played by Harry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursley from the “Harry Potter” franchise.
In an interesting twist, Melling’s Merrick doesn’t want to kill the immortals; rather, he wants to exploit their powers — not for himself, but to simply sell on the market. Merrick is no doubt modeled after “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, as a grounded capitalism-loving villain, instead of the traditional James Bond archetype. In a way, Merrick’s character is the most consistent of the entire movie. He wants to sell a miracle drug to get paid, and he’s willing to sacrifice the lives of the few to save — and profit from — the many.
For a movie with such a fantastic premise, “The Old Guard” is firmly grounded in reality as much as possible — almost to its detriment. These are immortal warriors who have fought across continents for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But the action scenes are relatively unimaginative, and sometimes downright bland. The camera remains too close to the action, but the choreography lacks imagination. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better in many other modern action films, including Netflix’s own “Extraction” earlier this year. It would have been nice to see the immortals blend various styles from across the globe to emphasize how long they’ve been fighting. Instead, most of the choreography is focused on quick and efficient kills, not unlike “John Wick,” along with the occasional bullet wound to remind viewers they can’t be killed.
“The Old Guard” does offer great representation for a modern action film. Theron’s Andy leads the group and is as strong and powerful as any of her other characters from movies like “Atomic Blonde” and “Mad Max Fury Road.” Nile, the audience surrogate, is an equally strong black female protagonist. Two of the immortals, Joe and Nicky, are gay and have been in love with each other for centuries. It’s great to see queerness represented so well in an action film. While Joe and Nicky aren’t the main characters, and actually spend most of the time captured by Merrick, they still share some of the best scenes in the movie. Their relationship is treated with respect and doesn’t feel token or forced.
“The Old Guard” offers a lot of very interesting ideas and keeps certain threads alive for a potential sequel. But it really fails to capitalize on its basic premise as a meaningful, enjoyable action flick. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better somewhere else. More than 30 years after “Highlander,” this movie still doesn’t capture that same exciting feel of immortal warriors fighting across time. It seemed more interested in trying to ground the premise as much as possible, instead of embracing it. Theron and Layne are great as the co-leads, and it’s good to see quality representation in action films, but it’s not enough to elevate “The Old Guard” beyond a passively enjoyable, albeit extremely forgettable, experience.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.