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Non-Review Review: The Old Guard

The Old Guard works best as a nostalgic throwback to turn-of-the-millennium action movies, and struggles awkwardly when it tries to be a modern superhero blockbuster.

The Old Guard is adapted by writer Greg Rucka from the Image Comics series that he created with artist Leandro Fernandez. The story focuses on a group of immortal warriors who have worked at the margins of human history for centuries, making small differences wherever they can while trying to stay out of the spotlight. It’s a pretty solid premise with a lot of narrative potential, and it could easily branch in any number of directions.

Immortal narrative engines.

The best and worst thing about The Old Guard is that it insists on branching in various competing directions. It often feels like three or four different movies that have been edited down into a fairly conventional and generic structure. By turns, The Old Guard tries to be a character study about the weight of immortality, a franchise-launching origin story, a criticism of modern hyper-capitalism, a solemn meditation on what it means to do good in a fallen world, and an old-fashioned kick-ass action movie with a pretty neat soundtrack.

To the credit of The Old Guard, it manages to avoid embarrassing itself too badly while trying to serve all of those competing impulses. However, that balance comes at a cost. None of the central ideas in The Old Guard are ever truly explored or developed, because that might mean that some other angle would get a short shrift. The result is an action film that is largely functional, which isn’t entirely satisfying but is also never completely frustrating. It’s a solid and sturdy film that largely avoids a potential identity crisis by declining to commit to a single identity.

An axe-soldier.

The Old Guard is very much a vehicle for Charlize Theron, who plays the oldest member of the eponymous group and who serves by default as their leader. As with quite a few of Theron’s action vehicles, the star is more than capable of meeting the physical demands of the role, while remaining somewhat over-qualified in terms of dramatic ability. Andy is not an especially complex character. She is an immortal who has inevitably grown disillusioned with eternal life, but who is not quite as jaded and cynical as she might present herself.

The Old Guard arguably works best in sheer practical terms. Gina Prince-Bythewood does an effective job with the fight scenes. She avoids a lot of the clutter and disjointed editing that typically undermines modern action films, wisely trusting Theron to be able to pull off a lot of the choreography in camera. There’s something endearingly nostalgic about Prince-Bythewood’s action scenes, with their pop music soundtrack and (relatively) understated speed cranking and camera movements.

“Sorry, did somebody say ‘over-qualified in terms of dramatic ability?'”

Combined with the casting of Theron, these combat sequences recall the action scenes of turn-of-the-millennium blockbusters. Characters don’t rely on the martial-arts-inspired physical strength or impossible physics of modern superhero blockbusters, instead leaning into combat using firearms and bladed weapons. Prince-Bythewood knows how to get her hero shots within those sequences, to deliver the sort of action scene pay-offs that anchor a movie like this. It is a simple pleasure, and it goes a long way.

Indeed, The Old Guard often feels like it would be a much better film if it embraced these simple pleasures instead of trying to over-complicate them. The movie’s biggest tonal issues arise when it tries to pivot within these action beats. At one point, The Old Guard features Andy massacring an entire platoon of soldiers as the soundtrack sings about “this world we made.” The newest member of the group, Nile seems horrified by what Andy has done. “Andy did all this herself?” she asks, surveying the aftermath.

Plane old fashioned fun.

There’s a slight sense of The Old Guard trying to have its cake and eat it – offering the audience a visceral and thrilling action scene, and then trying to make them feel bad about it afterwards. The Old Guard constantly gestures at a depth the film never earns. Most obviously, the climax of the film features a horrifying betrayal of trust from a major character, but it is quickly brushed aside so that the movie can get back to its impressive action sequences.

To be fair, this is not inherently a bad thing. Writer Greg Rucka clearly understands how superhero stories work, and a lot of The Old Guard unfolds according to formula. Rucka pulls the old trick of welcoming the audience into this world through the eyes of a new recruit – that tried and tested formula that worked for everything from Star Wars to Men in Black. Niles is a young soldier who has recently discovered her immortality, and so she provides a vehicle for exposition and perspective.

DeNile is an understandable approach.

The Old Guard hits a lot of the marks that the audience might expect from a film like this. At points, the plot feels like a series of checklists. Rucka dutifully sets up all of the superhero clichés so that he can hit them without ever needing to contort or bend. As such, several of the movie’s key twists are visible from space. Before The Old Guard even reveals the existence of a traitor to Andy, it is immediately clear – just looking at the cast and the premise – both that one character will betray her and that the motivations will stem from the familiar clichés of immortality.

Similarly, the closing scenes of The Old Guard hint at a potential sequel, which is something of an oddity for Netflix’s blockbusters, even allowing for reports of development of Bright 2. However, the film is structured so neatly that it is entirely possible to predict the sequel hook from about halfway through the film; Rucka is so dutiful in managing set-up and pay-off that the movie’s decision to dwell for several minutes on a seemingly disconnected piece of back story is obviously setting up the importance of that back story outside this particular narrative.

“We need ’em tough, morally flexible, and young enough so they can carry this franchise 10-12 years.”

This straightforward approach is a double-edged sword. The Old Guard doesn’t move in arcs so much as lines, at times seeming predictable and generic. On the other hand, this approach means that The Old Guard never really trips over itself. While it makes awkward gestures at profundity and insight, the superficial meditations on morality and power that are expected of modern blockbusters, it never allows itself to dwell too heavily upon them. The Old Guard might nod at the obligatory set-up of a modern superhero film, but never gets too bogged down in that set-up.

Still, there are times when The Old Guard might have done better to allow itself to slow down and dwell. The actual plot of The Old Guard is stock nonsense, hinging on the idea of a sinister pharmaceutical company plotting to harness the power of these characters and mass-produce their immortality. It’s standard stuff. However, there are hints of something interesting happening beneath the surface, as Andy finds herself repeatedly drawn to the question of what her heroism has actually accomplished.

Shadow of a doubt.

The Old Guard unfolds in a world that is recognisable. Andy watches news reports of chaos in Haiti and Syria. Andy is understandably fatigued at the sense that the world is coming undone. When a colleague suggests that they might do “some good”, Andy snaps, “Have you been watching the news lately? Some good means nothing.” Andy presses the point, expressing her own disillusionment with her accomplishments. “We’ve done nothing. The world isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.”

Rucka is a veteran of the superhero genre, and so he understands its tropes and conventions. Most obviously, superheroes are largely impotent. Superman cannot stop Donald Trump. Reed Richards cannot cure cancer. There are systemic and social problems that superheroes are not positioned to address. Because of the concept of verisimilitude, those characters must inhabit a world similar to our own, which means that they must live in a world facing the same problems and the same horrors. If that is the case, then what good are superheroes?

In darkness dwells.

It’s a paradox baked into the genre, but it is particularly pronounced at times of global strife. It isn’t simply a matter of internal consistency, but hints at an idea with even greater moral relevance: what does it mean to be good when the world is not, to do good when evil will triumph anyway? It’s a profound existential question, and one that applies even beyond immortal supersoldiers. It’s a question that reverberates everywhere from Wonder Woman to Frozen II to Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, and it’s an understandable anxiety in the age where “nothing matters.”

There’s the bones of an interesting story here. Rucka even allows his characters to meditate on what it means for these immortal characters to navigated fluctuating circumstances. “Are you good guys or bad guys?” Nile asks. “Depends upon the century,” comes the reply. “We fight for what we think is right.” There’s a sense that Rucka is alluding to questions about power and influence, and how those elements are best used, but The Old Guard never really engages with this argument in a meaningful way.

Getting on board with it.

The Old Guard offers answers, but they seem trite and sentimental. When Andy is wounded, she finds herself relying on an anonymous pharmacy worker for help. When Andy asks why a stranger would take such a risk, the woman replies, “Today, I help you with your wound. Tomorrow, you help someone up when they fall. We’re not meant to be alone.” Later, an analyst pieces together the larger picture of Andy’s history, creating a complex web that shapes human history, “She saves a life. Two, three generations later, we reap the benefits.”

It’s a very facile attempt to answer a very tough question – to suggest that everything eventually balances out in the long run as long as people pay it forward. It’s a rather trite analysis, as it avoids anchoring Andy’s heroism in any inherent worth or goodness, and instead tries to justify it on consequentialist grounds. But how many people did Andy save go on to kill other people? How many people did Andy save go on to have children who designed weapons or participated in injustice? There’s a lazy and unearned grasp at optimism in The Old Guard.

Pretty ‘Andy with a weapon.

This is a recurring problem with the film. The Old Guard repeatedly broaches ideas that are challenging and provocative. At one point, Nile ruminates on the fact that Andy has turned her immortals into a tactical hit squad. Nile muses that he time in the army taught her to kill. “Is that what we’re supposed to be?” she demands. “I can’t be that.” There’s an interesting idea here, one that raises the question about how Andy has chosen to use her gifts, the way in which she has decided to apply her influence. The Old Guard isn’t interested in answering that.

To be fair, this isn’t a fatal flaw. Indeed, there’s something to be said for the pulpy superficial pleasures of The Old Guard, like the fun that it has with its action scenes or the trust that it has in Theron as a leading performer. The Old Guard broaches these questions, but seems wary that the answers might lead to a joyless and portentous slog, so brushes them aside with little actual engagement. It often feels like The Old Guard feels obligated to acknowledge the self-importance of modern blockbuster cinema, but is more interested in giddy old-fashioned thrills.

The Old Guard is sturdy and solid, if not exceptional or insightful. It hits most of the marks expected of this old and familiar narrative templates, with a minimum of fuss and a minimum of flare. The Old Guard could probably have been a much better movie if were willing to swing a little wider, but it might also have been a much worse one. The result is a film that sits right in the middle of the road.

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