Brutish Squad, by Bob Connally

12 Jul

The premise of The Old Guard sounds like a teenage boy saying, “What if Highlander but Furiosa is John Wick?!” The resulting film feels as though it was written by a teenage boy. Basing it upon his own graphic novel series of the same name, Greg Rucka’s screenplay is full of cringe-inducing dialogue delivered by actors who are either trying to hide their own embarrassment or whose weaknesses are only exposed by it. The only exception to this is Chiwetel Ejiofor who is giving it his all as a character potentially more interesting than the immortal leads of the film. In his relatively small role, he’s better than this movie deserves.

Andy (Charlize Theron) is the head of a commando unit consisting of herself and three other immortal warriors, who have fought side by side for centuries, “for what we think is right,” which is a real line in this movie. Andy, the oldest of the four, has become cynical and bitter, believing that they’ve done little to no good for humanity despite their best efforts. She questions if their intervention in world events has been worth it and a smarter script could have explored this idea in an interesting way but this is really just left on the surface.

As in Highlander, no amount of bullets can kill these immortals. After “dying” for a moment, they heal completely and rise to fight again. Also as in Highlander, they can sense one of their own. While the four of them are on the run after a disastrous job, they discover the first new immortal to arrive in centuries. Nile (KiKi Layne) is a United States Marine killed in action who does not understand her survival after getting her throat slashed and bleeding to death. Her fellow Marines look upon her with distrust and disdain for her survival. Which also happens in Highlander. Rather than being banished from her clan like Connor MacLeod however, Nile is abducted by Andy and thrown aboard a plane where she’s told she’s one of them now and must join their fight because…she’s one of them now.

The Old Guard is a combination of abysmal writing, performances by actors who are either indifferent (Theron) or just outright bad (Layne), and action sequences that are competent but hardly exciting. Good action should either be fun or intense and brutal. These scenes are neither. The action sequences of another recent Netflix film, Extraction, while hardly jaw-dropping were at least well-executed and exciting to watch. They may not have been as memorable as what we’ve gotten from the John Wick films or Atomic Blonde (a decidedly better action vehicle for Theron), but they made for a solid action movie. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s previous work includes Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees, so she seems an odd choice for this kind of film and she really doesn’t show promise as an action director, beyond simple competence. While there’s no overcoming Rucka’s painful dialogue and poor storytelling, good action could have at least salvaged this movie somewhat.

While The Old Guard is riddled with problems, I emphasize the writing here because it really does sink this film every chance it gets. While I would never ask a movie like this to sound as though it was written by Paddy Chayefsky or Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s not unfair to want the dialogue to sound believably appropriate for the world it’s set in. Even in a universe with immortal warriors, your characters can still talk like real people. These lines may work in a bubble in a graphic novel but they don’t work spoken out loud. What’s surprising about this is that Rucka is the creator of ABC’s Stumptown, one of the more purely entertaining television series’ of the past few years. The solid writing is a big key to that show’s success.

Beyond the dialogue, another big problem is the derivative nature of the story at every turn. More than just a shameless knockoff of Highlander, The Old Guard’s plot involves a billionaire pharma brat (Harry Melling, Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films) who wants to capture Andy and the rest of her team in order to perform experiments on them and discover what it is that makes them immortal. His ultimate goal is to use it to cure diseases and save billions of lives. Because this movie needs him to be a villain though, he can’t be doing this for humanitarian purposes. It’s all about building his own empire and squashing potential competitors. This is a character who could have at least been played for hammy fun but Melling just portrays him in such an uninteresting way. He’s completely non-threatening, hiding behind his vast security team. He needs a single right-hand man or woman who’s physically imposing and with a strong personality to create an interesting dynamic. Someone who can be a real threat. Instead, he’s like Timothy Olyphant’s computer hacking villain from Live Free or Die Hard: a character no one fears (though to be fair to Olyphant, he at least did the best he could with that, which can’t really be said for Melling here).

As our “heroes,” Theron, Layne, and the rest are as dull as can be. Ultimately too, no matter how much the movie wants to tell us about all of the great things they’ve done for humanity, virtually everything we see them do in the film is entirely self-serving. There’s no feeling that these people have gained any meaningful wisdom either, despite living for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years. As the newest immortal, Layne delivers one of the poorest performances I’ve seen in a movie in some time. While the writing does her no favors, she still comes off like a complete amateur, unable to keep up with Theron, even in a performance that feels phoned in. It’s even more apparent in a scene late in the film with Ejiofor. There’s a commitment from him, even to this dreadful material, that actually makes me care if only for a moment. Unfortunately, his deeply admirable work here is against Layne’s obvious inexperience and it feels like they’re doing two different things.

The Old Guard may not end up being the worst movie of 2020, even with a lot fewer films than normal coming out this year. As noted above, the action sequences are at least competent and while Prince-Bythewood doesn’t knock anything out of the park here, it’s not a completely inept movie. It feels like a real Hollywood production with a budget and made by people who’ve worked on movies before, even if they aren’t that good at it and may not really care. But even with the convenience of it sitting there on Netflix, The Old Guard is worth no one’s time. Unless you’re a devoted Chiwetel Ejiofor fan and need to see him pour his heart into a movie that doesn’t deserve it, stay far away from this one.

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