Movies

Review: The Old Guard

Charlize Theron back in action.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, pretty much, that not every Charlize Theron movie deserves to have Charlize Theron in it. Nor did Theron herself deserve to be stuck in such unworthy product as Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) or The Last Face (2017), a straight-to-TV item directed by her onetime love interest Sean Penn. And let us say as little as possible about the witless Waking Up in Reno (2002), in which she played a gum-chewing Dixie chick named Candy.

But these strike-outs are anomalies among the nearly 50 movies Theron has made over the course of a career that is now in its 25th year. In this time, she has proved herself an actor of serious depth, winning an Oscar for the 2003 Monster, a nomination for the 2005 North Country, and plaudits for such singular films as Young Adult and Tully. At the same time, she has happily signed up for excursions into fantasy (the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman) and big-deal sci-fi (Ridley Scott's Prometheus). In addition, she has also established herself as an A-list action hero in movies like George Miller's thunderous Mad Max: Fury Road, the Cold War spy film Atomic Blonde, and now a Netflix feature, The Old Guard.

Like Atomic Blonde, the new film is adapted from a graphic novel, this one created by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the movie's screenplay) and illustrator Leandro Fernández. Also like Atomic Blonde, the film version doesn't quite work.

Theron plays Andy, the leader of a quartet of immortal warriors who frankly wouldn't mind dying. ("I've been here before," she says, faced with another hairy situation. "Over and over again. I'm just so tired of it.") This world-weariness was a resonant theme in Rucka's comic, but in the film it's been diluted with a mopey humanitarian melancholy. ("We've done nothing," Andy says. "The world isn't getting better, it's getting worse.") This is fine and all, real-world-wise, but it makes the movie a trudge at times.

The story has a promising pulp texture, though (the sequel suggested at the movie's conclusion could be fun); and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who's made her name with romances like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, brings off the many action scenes with considerable verve. She also does a nice job with a flashback to the long-ago fate of an early Andy associate named Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), which is gruesome in an especially colorful way.

Andy's un-killable three-man team—Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Lica Marinelli)—has combat credentials that date back to the Crusades, and Andy herself has been around for several millennia (her ancient name is Andromache of Scythia). As the story begins, they've been hired by an ex-CIA operative named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to fly to South Sudan and rescue a group of little girls who've been kidnapped by child-slavers. This turns out to be a setup, though, and footage of the team's ambush, slaughter and instant revivification is uploaded for use by a nefarious young pharma mogul named Merrick (Harry Melling, onetime Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter films), who wants to extract the secret of their immortality for commercial purposes.

While Andy and company are contemplating this predicament, we're taken to Afghanistan to meet a U.S. Army sergeant named Nile (Kiki Layne, of If Beale Street Could Talk). Nile is unaware that she, too, is an immortal warrior (until her throat is slashed by a terrorist and the wound fades away like a mild cough). But before long, she's recruited to Andy's team, and they're all off to London to confront the creepy Merrick and his many murderous thugs.

The action scenes here don't have the wild style of the ones in Atomic Blonde (but then that movie was directed by David Leitch, a veteran of the John Wick films). However, Theron wades into them with full commitment, and as always she's a pleasure to watch. I do wish someone would've explained the exact nature of these people's immortality—it turns out they can die, but generally just don't, or whatever. If there's a sequel, this opaque plot point should be high on any list of things crying out to be cleared up.

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  1. Watched this a couple days ago. It was pretty good.

    1. Average by SyFy channel standards. Not as good as the Underworld series of films. And Theron’s role as icy, war-weary anti-hero doesn’t come close to her peers’ abilities on the big screen (forget Eastwood as William Munny or Willis as McClain, she barely rises to Nolte in Another 48 hrs. level).

      Remember Rhona Mitra’s role in Doomsday? No? Exactly.

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  2. I do wish someone would’ve explained the exact nature of these people’s immortality—it turns out they can die, but generally just don’t, or whatever. If there’s a sequel, this opaque plot point should be high on any list of things crying out to be cleared up.

    I don’t need this detail clarified. The movie was a trudge from beginning to end and Theron’s moping didn’t help. The plot was absolutely terrible (surprisingly, the shitty SJW features don’t help) and the only redeeming point was in the not-at-all surprising reveal at the end.

    An example of the dumpster fire which doesn’t really spoil anything (and is telling in-and-of itself), is when the new recruit, contemporary child of a single-parent home on Chicago’s south side, recognizes a Gauguin sculpture that has been in one of the other immortal’s secret stash that’s ‘hundreds of years old’. And, despite being ‘immortal’ one of the others quips that Theron’s character may have known Gauguin “in the Biblical sense” (like a teenager seemingly unaware of Gauguin’s… questionable relationship history).

    The plot is littered with this garbage ad that’s not even the smelliest bit. *spoilers* Characters betray their centuries-old friends for no real reason except the plot needs them to. The moment of ‘redemption’ for the hero is when they discover that a couple generations after she saves someone, good things happen to the grandchildren of the people she saved (but never met). Historic timelines aren’t just unclear, but jumbled and of all the immortals, Theron is the only one who acts like she’s really anything beyond her years.

    The movie was adequate by SyFy channel standards and Theron’s role was better played by Lucy Lawless.

    1. good things happen to the grandchildren of the people she saved (but never met)

      And by ‘good things’ I don’t mean anything supernatural like money appears out of nowhere or their diseases are miraculously cured. Theron’s character might have saved Ghandi’s grandma, ergo she’s a force for good!

      Like a lot of the rest of the plot, I suspect it was better written in the graphic novel and translated poorly to the screen.

      1. She may’ve said Rodin I had started tuning out well before then. There were paintings, there were sculptures, it was implied that all of it had been in this cave for decades if not longer and an military brat from the South Side can recognizes the artist on sight like Art History was part of her basic training. Again, in the comic book, there’s probably some great back story about how she went to art museums to avoid gang life, but in the movie it comes across as meaningless rigamaroll.

        I started tuning out when, in the very first scene, Theron accidentally winds up in a selfie and, rather than ‘accidentally’ destroying the phone, not-totally-conspicuously swipes through the photos on someone else’s phone and throws the offending photos in the garbage without so much as a “What the fuck are you doing with my phone?”; and then just walks off like the ‘undo’ button and/or cloud backup was never invented.

        I mean, FFS, there’s a scene where a supposedly highly trained security guard who knows immortals exist shoots someone and then kicks the gun in their ‘dead’ hand but not out of their grasp. The writers and directors knew the right procedure and realized they had written themselves into a corner and rather than writing themselves out went ahead and filmed it and left it there for everyone to see. Almost like they themselves got 3/4 through the film and said “Fuck it.”

      2. Again, throughout the movie Theron’s character is carrying a nearly unblemished metal (seemingly steel) axe even in thousand-year-old flashbacks where she’s riding on horseback in tribal armor (which is itself… historically odd).

        I don’t care if you want to make high fantasy like Xena or Mad Max, historical fantasy like Troy, or contemporary action thrillers like Bourne, Alias, or Atomic Blonde, but this movie staggers messily between the three.

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        2. plus how did the women immortals maintain ear rings without the holes in their ears closing up like the bullet wounds did when they pushed the bullets out of their body and healed etc?

      3. Rodin was in my favorite Godzilla movie.

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  5. immortals whining about immortality can eat the biggest bag there is.

    liked her in Arrested Development. loved her fate in Prometheus

    1. . . . loved her fate in Prometheus

      Embarrassment to white people everywhere – if there’s one thing we know how to do its *make a left turn*.

      1. um, you’re not going to win that footrace, cutie…

  6. Immortals whinging about immortality is a theme that it seems like every generation of Fantasy/SF/Comic Book writers comes up with and firmly believe they’ve done for the first time. I can certainly name examples from every decade of my life (been in 1961) and I suspect that it stretches back AT LEAST to the legend of the Wandering Jew.

    It’s also reoccurring thing in modern film that somebody does a film based on a long established SF trope and a bunch of critics who don’t read SF treat art as if is a brand new idea;

    THE MATRIX (life is an evil illusion covering the Slavery of the Human Race. NOT a new idea.)

    AVATAR (Writers have been using First Contact stories to wring the changes on the West’s treat,ent of Native Peoples at least since the 1920’s)

    I could go on.

  7. Nor did Theron herself deserve to be stuck in such unworthy product . . .

    I was going to say that you had forgotten to list Prometheus, but no, having seen her performance there, that movie got exactly what it deserved from her.

  8. The original ‘Highlander’ had a better thought out immortality scenario

    IF you cannot get hurt, cannot get sick, then you end up fabulously wealthy by accident.
    Also lose your head and die makes some sense

  9. Contra Loder, I regard Theron’s presence in any film as a serious warning sign. When I saw the sumary for this one, I thought “This might be cool … oh, it’s Theron. It’s going to be woke. Too bad.”

    1. The older/further along in her career she gets, defnitely. When you have to act for a paycheck it’s one thing. When you choose to show up not because you need to, but because you think film needs to be more diverse, well, then you aren’t really acting.

    2. And I can confirm that, whether Theron was responsible or not, the film’s plot veers pretty stupidly in woke direction in at least a couple of places.

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  11. Is she beating up a black person? Oh dear. How did that escape the wokesters?

  12. I liked Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Sue me.

  13. This movie is really good. I watched it for free on the thoptv
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