The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenwriter: Greg Rucka
Starring: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kanzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling
In an era in which increasing numbers of young people – still the primary target audiences of many a film studio, certainly when releasing action movies – are leaning more heavily to the political left in an understandable reaction to a lifetime of stresses and anxieties caused by ultra-capitalist ideals and “traditional” points of view that put their entire existence at risk, the film industry seems no more insipid than when it pursues this audience’s time and (often) money through a commodified approach to being “inclusive”. 2020 Netflix Original action film The Old Guard is one of this year’s worst offenders.
The action-fantasy hybrid about a small number of basically invincible gun-slingers is a far right fantasy, telling the story of a select group individuals who for seemingly no reason are ordained the power of invincibility and thus take on the responsibility of choosing between good and evil in the world with as few consequences as you might imagine for a capitalistic band of invincible hired guns. The film presents death by gun, by sword and by ax ad infinitum as the merry band carve their way through shallowly presented evil goons on the screen without so much as a hint of moral questioning or creative presentation, and it takes advantage of every tax break any nation will afford it behind the scenes to offer a false sense of “country-hopping action” in its whopping three tax-break-inclusive locations. What makes this relatively minor-league actioner (comparable more to White House Down than John Wick or any Marvel movie) particularly gross, is how it dresses itself up in inclusive garb; like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne make for an impressive leading duo, and the supporting cast of actors with different accents, nationalities and backgrounds paints the picture of a unique, forward thinking and importantly inclusive movie, the target audience firmly in the mind of the producers adapting this for Netflix. Together, the cast make for an impressive collaboration and each give relatively strong performances compared to the material they’re working with, many of them even stretching into stunt work to provide a level of believability to fight scenes that inconsistently land between the good work in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the much less impressive fare present in the close-combat workings of almost every late 2000s era action film – this being: other than visual signifiers (such as a weapon of choice), the fight scenes add little, if anything at all, to each character; the entire selection approaching combat in almost precisely the same way, whether good guys or bad.
Even more generic than vast portions of the action is the characterisation, which forms an uneasy and decaying backbone for a film that feels drawn out and far from unique to begin with. Theron’s Andy is given backstory intermittently, important moments from her past dropped into the film to beg for emotional resonance without impacting our perspective on the character. Meanwhile, Layne’s Nile Freeman is little more than an ‘honourable army woman’ who cares for her family – not that we see it in her behaviour or that it impacts the way she behaves or fights, but because she tells us about faceless characters who exist somewhere off-screen. The other members of their association are nothing more than brief lines of expository dialogue and self-proclamations, while the villains of the piece are frankly terrible – Harry Potter alum Harry Melling, in the role of big-pharma CEO Steven Merrick, given dated one-liners of villainy instead of any of the depth his character’s job inherently offers, all the while producing one of the worst lead antagonist performances in any mainstream movie from the past few years, his work being an unbelievable caricature of the most boring aspects of the typical movie villain.
Tonally, The Old Guard is also a mess. The opening promises close-combat action from a group that exists between the cracks of our worldwide political perspective, audio-visual inspiration clearly taken from the Bourne Franchise and later Bond movies, but this is soon upended by a swinging establishing shot straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, the jarring inclusion of an R&B song throwing any early investment right out the window. Why this is there is anyone’s guess, and the music returns intermittently without any rhyme or reason for the rest of the film, offering less of a unique experience and more of a huge block to any persisting immersion, as well as an unforgivable misunderstanding as to the artistry of soundtracking a cinematic release.
It seems that with The Old Guard, Netflix were setting up the start of an action movie universe, the film taking pointers from 2017’s incredibly poor The Mummy when it comes to dropping in characters that seem to promise something that never comes to fruition, their inclusions meant for something else at another time but almost inexcusably irrelevant and/or forced in this film as a standalone.
The idea behind this 2020 Netflix release seems, overall, pretty simple: offer a low standard, generic and self-serious action movie with a unique hook, and slap some inclusive dressing on its inherently opposite politics to draw in the crowds that wouldn’t otherwise look twice. It is a bombardment of shallow statements on real issues, each of which hold no purpose or wider consequence to the characters or the film’s wider narrative, an inherently bland and typically post-9/11 war revenge movie that forgets about everything it sets up in the first act to chase a story of revenge instead, its every step moving it closer and closer to its goal of having us identify with the struggles of the most privileged in all of Earth’s history, “don’t hate that we were born into power” being the not-so-subtle message of a film celebrated for placing traditionally oppressed women and people of colour at the forefront – an utterly tripe example of the worst of consumerist “equality” from a brand becoming increasingly difficult to disassociate from such underhanded tactics.
The Old Guard has come to offer a lot to Netflix, the film being the only entry in the streaming service’s Top 10 Most Viewed in 30 Days List to be directed by a woman of colour, and the accomplishment of Gina Prince-Bythewood in this respect must not only be acknowledged but celebrated, and the woman-led action on the screen must also be acknowledged as an important step for the genre despite how this film in many ways takes several steps back. The issue here is that The Old Guard is a poorly adapted, low quality and overly-produced commodity, with the intentions of studio and producers being more to make the above headlines and draw wider audiences than to create any meaningful discussion or offer any sort of commentary; this film being a wholly capitalistic venture rather than an artistic one. There is no depth to The Old Guard‘s inclusivity, only the pursuit of profit, and in today’s day and age where issues such as gender and race equality are at the forefront of public discussion, there are plenty more films offering substantially greater contributions to the discussion than The Old Guard.
While there is no doubt that an action film led by Charlize Theron will appeal to some based on that information alone, The Old Guard simply does not have the quality, excitement or individuality needed to satisfy the less invested.