Directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood and written by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the comic book of the same name, a covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered. Starring: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo and Anamaria Marinca.
Any time a female director can get her hands on such a big budget action film, it’s a refreshing change of pace, especially given that Blythewood became the first black woman to direct a comic book film with this project. Then you throw in having an openly gay relationship between two men who are possibly one of the most dedicated couples to ever grace the screen and plenty of room for discussion of the larger relationship between Theron’s Andy and Ngo’s Quynh. Superhero stories are certainly far from something we’re short of in recent years but this particular effort does feel like it brings something new to the table.
One of its strongest advantages is that it’s a film about superheroes, that never makes you think of them in their usual context, they have a much more real quality, they just happen to be immortal and have lived for centuries. This is certainly strengthened further by the camaraderie that is immediately clear between their crew, they all have a great chemistry and banter, plus the casting of Theron opposite Schoenaerts was a brilliant choice. However, the best casting choice to pair with Theron has to be Layne, who despite her absolutely fantastic performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, has remained fairly quiet, it’s a huge jump from the type of films she’s been in but she handles the change extremely well. Layne is another that has a great chemistry with Theron, Andy is the glue that holds them all together and Theron pulls it off pretty effortlessly, even though watching this performance is bittersweet knowing that she won’t be revisiting Furiosa. Theron has shown repeatedly that she’s capable of a huge variety of roles and this is no exception, she’s a joy to watch and a brilliant performance to centre the film around. However, none of the performances feel particularly full of depth, Theron gets closest and they do touch upon the emotional issues of their immortal existences and those they’ve left behind but it’s relatively simple. With a film such as this there sadly wouldn’t be the time to add more depth to their struggles and it’s unlikely most of its target audience would want it, so only scratching the surface isn’t a surprise.
When the story is boiled down, it’s quite simple, there’s no convoluted plot going on here, it may have a couple of more surprising turns in store but really, they’re being hunted for their god-like talents, while introducing a new member to the immortals club. Thankfully, the majority of the writing keeps away from overly cliched territory, there are a few lines here and there that are too on the nose but for the most part it feels relatively new and captivating. Perhaps the more frustrating aspect of the writing is the ending it’s always a disappointing factor to see a film setting itself up so clearly for a sequel, it’s the film equivalent of patting yourself on the back and immediately reduces the desire to see it so it was an unfortunate and unnecessary choice. It also feels like it’s holding back, despite its violence and buckets of blood, there’s a soft edge to it, it never delves into the darkness of their situation, instead it’s quite a lightened version of events. A lot of that feeling comes from the use of music and the grading, both of which make the film feel like it was hedging its bets for a younger audience. The choices of songs are very accessible pop which don’t feel appropriate, they feel like they’re trying to appeal to the mainstream when their intense action sequences deserved better, the chosen songs constantly stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a shame when the choreography is so effective for it to be paired with a misplaced song.
The direction is stylish and does work well with the action it has to offer but it would have been great to see them take the lead from films like Upgrade and really force the direction into the perspective of its characters. It does work but it doesn’t have as high of an energy as you might expect from a film such as this, again it feels too safe. It’s a difficult balance to describe as while Blythewood is bringing a fresher style to the directorial efforts of superhero films, it isn’t adding anything that new in the larger world of action. All of it persistently adds up to a softened edge, it had the potential to be something dark and gritty, but it seems to be afraid to go that far, instead keeping the violence but playing it out in an accessible way that’s teen friendly. There are also some instances of heavy-handed editing, it’s wasteful to use so many cuts with such well choreographed action sequences, something it has plenty of.
The Old Guard is far from perfect but there is a definitive watchable quality to it through its incredible casting and action that keep you invested, however you can’t help but feel that it’s holding back from reaching its full potential. Theron gives yet another fantastic performance and it’s wonderful to watch her in a mentor style role to Layne. Blythewood is a talented director with a more refreshing style than many others of the comic book movie genre and hopefully this will mean she’ll get more chances to show her talent on a bigger scale but it’s not quite enough to push this film to a level of more unforgettable viewing. Sadly, it just plays things a little too safe and resists the opportunity to embrace its darker side despite its love of violence.