The Old Guard review – Netflix immortality thriller won't live long in the memory

Not even Charlize Theron can save an action movie crying out for a comic touch to match the silliness of its premise

A sort-of-dull title for a sort-of-dull film. This is basically a two-hour dollop of action-movie product, teased out to look like a superhero origin story and touting (weakly) for the possible beginnings of a franchise property. DC Comics writer Greg Rucka has adapted his own graphic novel series of the same title and the director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose debut movie Love and Basketball from 20 years ago – about a young woman with a gift for basketball – I still remember fondly. That had a humanity and idealism that seems far away from this ponderous stuff, which is crucially lacking in the humour that might have sold the essential silliness of its premise.

Charlize Theron appears in the badass mode that is an important part of her screen persona: previously seen in Fast & Furious, Atomic Blonde, Aeon Flux and of course Mad Max: Fury Road. These days, she doesn’t appear comfortable unless she’s sporting an asymmetrical short haircut, dark glasses and a couple of Glocks. She plays Andy, the leader of a tough crew of mercenaries who get hired for large amounts of money to do dangerous stuff; helping her are Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). These soldiers of fortune have a secret: they are immortal. For decades and in fact centuries, they have been battling on the side of righteousness, standing up for the oppressed. There are some very ridiculous “olden-dayes” flashbacks showing Theron in ancient warrior headdresses solemnly galloping around on a horse.

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne.
Meet-cute mentoring ... Charlize Theron with KiKi Layne as Nile. Photograph: Aimee Spinks/Netflix

Over the years, they’ve also supposedly been doing good by saving the lives of people whose children or grandchildren will one day do stuff like cure polio, although how they have the foresight to do this is a mystery, because prophecy is not among their gifts. The script also briefly concedes that they have to work for the bad guys once in a while (although this distasteful necessity is not shown) in orde to stockpile cash for food, guns, ammo and so on. But immortality is their sole superpower: they don’t have super-strength, or the ability to fly or be invisible. They are essentially no stronger and smarter than any of the ex-special-forces people that they wind up getting into fights with. It’s just that when you shoot or stab them, the wound heals up and they start over. Their millennia-long existence comes to a crisis when a new immortal joins their vampiric ranks: USMC officer Nile, played by KiKi Layne (from Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk). And a certain shadowy CIA officer Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) approaches them with a deal, at the behest of creepy corporate kingpin Merrick (Harry Melling).

Theron always brings a certain hauteur and dash to her action and martial-arts sequences and Layne has real screen presence. It’s a pity that more of the movie could not have been about the meet-cute mentoring “soromance” between Andy and Nile. The adjective in the title is right. It gets old pretty quickly.

• The Old Guard is available on 10 July on Netflix.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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