Review by C.J. Bunce
On the heels of heavy-hitting, big-budget, high-energy, and fun Netflix direct-to-TV action movies as good as theatrical releases like 6 Underground and Extraction, it’s a shame Netflix’s next direct-to-TV release action movie is more misfire than fireworks. Academy Award-winning actor Charlize Theron stars as a leader of the next take on Assassin’s Creed in Skydance Media’s The Old Guard, with a script by Greg Rucka based on his comic book mini-series (with artist Leandro Fernández), directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees). Unfortunately poor dialogue, a weak script, slow pacing, and uninspired execution in the face of so much good alternative content available makes Netflix’s latest one easy to skip.
It feels like all the best parts of The Old Guard happen in the backstory. We see a few glimpses of it during the film, but most of it during the end credits. It’s a two-hour trick–a set-up for the next movie now that viewers finally have seen the origin story. Audiences have seen Theron deliver memorable characters in intense action movie roles. Think of her Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road as high points, but even fun action vehicles like Aeon Flux are worth a re-watch and her baddie Cipher is primed to take over the Fast & Furious franchise. So we know it’s not her that doesn’t make the movie work–she’s done this several times.
It’s the story, which tries to be so much like Assassin’s Creed’s giant mythology, but wastes time setting up dramatic conflict instead of world-building. Theron plays lead character Andy, the oldest of four surviving members of a group of badass immortals (played by Red Sparrow’s Matthias Schoenaerts, Aladdin’s Marwan Kenzari, and Martin Eden’s Luca Marinelli) whose purpose seems to be to attempt to do good–what they view as good–by eliminating bad elements, people, etc., throughout history. As a new member is called in to join the team (played by If Beale Street Could Talk and Captive State star KiKi Layne), a long-time hound on the trail of the team’s secrets (played by 12 Years a Slave Academy Award nominee and Doctor Strange actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) works to bring down the group for a mad scientist puppetmaster, played by Harry Potter series and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs actor Harry Melling. With one or two more twists thrown in, that’s the entire first chapter for this new film series.
This immortal team has the kind of power that is easy to understand, especially if you read comics or watch superhero movies (which is now everyone thanks to Avengers: Endgame, right?). So why are these four characters who have had this power for centuries still angsting over it? And why is this director and writer letting them? We’ve seen the two above-mentioned Netflix action movies with characters tasked with the same thing, and they got in, got the job done, and got out, with much more fun for the viewer. This year’s Bloodshot had a similar new superhero challenge, providing a new character’s back story to a new audience, but the results of its big budget, its special effects, tech, style, and a good soundtrack made up for it. The team of four also lacks diversity and nuance–three white guys and a white woman before Layne’s character joins up. How about at least mixing up the ages of the cast a bit more?
As for the sound, the film lacks a rousing musical score to carry viewers forward, instead opting for pop songs whose placement is somewhat cringey, inserted to highlight emotional beats that don’t quite fit the action genre. We see several choreographed fight scenes (including two really good ones) so we know this is supposed to be an action movie, but the through-line is more emotional drama, and it doesn’t work–a slow start, long-winded exposition, too many talking head scenes, lots of prep work and set-up and no pay-off (the first piece of useful information doesn’t come along for 80 minutes).
The film also could stand a basic dialogue edit, with bad, clunky lines, like Theron’s, “Me and those men will keep you safe.”
Comic books have moved far beyond material like this, but it’s understandable someone thought the comic book mini-series was worth adapting to the screen. Check out the source material comics and what you’ll see missing in glaring fashion from the movie are those visuals played out in the backstory–those costume drama battles you probably expect to see in a movie about badass immortals making their way through time. What makes the comic work is very much artist Leandro Fernández’s design style, choreography, and action sequences–all those things that make a story like this fun–which was skipped over. You’ll find the comics series in a compilation edition here (sorry, like the Extraction source material comic Ciudad, you’re not likely to find it in hardcopy for now), with a sequel comic due out later this year called The Old Guard: Force Multiplied.
The Old Guard is available now, streaming exclusively on Netflix.