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Mortal or not, you made a promise. Whatever it takes.

Movie

The Old Guard
(2020)

 

If you always wanted Highlander without the colour, verve and humour – Highlander with every drop of personality drained out, and I’m not referring to the TV show – then this is the immortal movie for you. The Old Guard, adapted by Greg Rucka from his comic book, is serviceable but offers just about zero surprises and little more of anything else that would make it remotely memorable. Well, except perhaps for Harry Melling, coming on like a gimboid, coke-nightmare Matt Smith as the big-pharma villain.

Part of this is down to the cast, who are all – Melling aside – entirely professional but resolutely unimpressive. Part of it is down to director Gina Prince-Bythewood, tackling her first action movie in competent but nondescript fashion (she’s still attached to Sony’s on-off Silver Sable and/or Black Cat). If producer-star Charlize Theron wanted a shit-hot auterish female director calling the shots, she probably should speed-dialled Karyn Kusama, responsible for their previous, gorgeous-looking bomb Aeon Flux. But maybe Theron didn’t want anyone too exacting.

Prince-Bythewood keeps The Old Guard ticking along, but the cinematography is bland, the staging routine, and the mood correspondingly dour. Perhaps Rucka was consciously avoiding a deep dive into the Highlander flashback pool, because there aren’t a whole lot here. If so, he’s really doing himself no favours. since that’s the most enticing part of the concept.

The mythology is fairly unspectacular – you can’t be killed until you stop healing, but we see no one have their head cut off or get pulverised, so the degrees of deadness aren’t really explored – and aside from lovers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Liuca Marinelli), the quartet are a stony-faced bunch. In fact, even they aren’t that much fun, Rucka seemingly more focussed on scoring progressive points than making them genuinely memorable (one would be forgiven for assuming he’d written the comic book specifically to such a tick-box formula, with a view to getting a movie deal; as such, his protestations of having to fight to keep that element sound rather like publicity-machine puffery).

Inevitably, there needs to be an ingenue to this warrior world, here in the form of KiKi Layne’s Nile; she’s essentially the Connor McCleod to Theron’s Connery/Ramirez (or Andromache of Scythia). Except that Connery had the better hair (and ponytail), couture and flamboyance to spare. Nile is introduced as part of an all-female marine unit in Afghanistan, which makes immortals fighting the good fight for centuries seem fairly likely by comparison. Nile is given lots of moaning about the life she’s lost and a moment where she shuns the obligatory ultra-violence of this kind of movie, before leaping back in – and out of a penthouse window holding onto her victim – with gusto.

Theron does the world weariness well enough and has the action moves down to a fine art, but there’s nothing to distinguish her here from other similar roles she’s done, right down to that ponytail-free haircut. She’s playing exactly to her brand image, but without any of the iconographic inspiration we saw in Furiosa or Lorraine Broughton.

Chiwetel Ejiofor was presumably offered a handsome cheque as there’s no other earthly reason for him to take the totally nothing role of the guy who tracks the team down for “noble” motives; namely, the genetic code inside them that could help every human being on Earth. Of which, I haven’t a clue why Melling even seems to be bothering supporting this story, since it isn’t remotely plausible that big pharma would engage with something that would genuinely help people. Bang would go their profit margins.

Matthias Schoenaerts probably comes out best as fourth team member Booker, and that’s in spite of a really dumb betrayal subplot, presumably introduced for no other reason than there needed to be some conflict between the otherwise anodyne gang. He’s also rewarded with the “everyone around you is going to grow old and suffer and die” speech.

The Old Guard only manages to command sustained attention during the third-act assault on Melling’s lab. Even then, it’s very familiar. The picture’s best moment is probably the recollection of the “fate” of Quynh (Veronica Ngo) “locked in an iron coffin under the sea” where she keeps drowning and coming back to life. We’ve seen the fate of an immortal entombed before, but not one condemned to an endless stir and repeat every few minutes. Certainly, it’s the only idea here with any staying power.

Apparently, the comic had a significant human-trafficking subplot that has been all-but ditched. Understandable, as it would likely have made the whole affair interminably grim-faced. Did I mention that no one here seems to be having any fun at all?

Although, what with The Old Guard title, some wag might have thought human trafficking ventured a bit too close to a Q Anon exposé (that, and the connection of Andromache of Scythia to Ashkenazi). Prince-Bythewood manages to grasp the occasional dramatic underscore, such as Nile’s fellow soldiers rejecting her (not nearly as impactful as Connor being stoned out of his village) and a wounded Andy bewildered over first-aid supplies at an all-night drug store, but they’re few and far between.

Still, Netflix’s bar for this sort of material is resolutely low, and they presumably think they’re going to milk a few sequels out of The Old Guard, seeing as it ends with Quynh resurfacing. Besides which, there’s been no resolution to Andy’s now mortality issues; she’ll surely have her super-healing skillz returned at some point. If Bright can garner a sequel, the The Older Guard is sure to be put on a fast track when the (likely decent) ratings come in.

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