Netflix has had plenty of success with its genre-spanning original television series, but its original films have been a mixed bag. The streaming video platform has produced some critical darlings (and even a few Oscar winners), but has yet to produce the sort of mainstream, blockbuster film franchise that turns it into a serious contender in Hollywood.
The latest attempt at doing so is The Old Guard, an action thriller starring Charlize Theron that casts the Academy Award winner (and Mad Max: Fury Road standout) as an immortal mercenary who uses her particular set of skills to lead a crack team of her fellow deathless soldiers. When her team finds themselves hunted by a mysterious organization, they’re forced to go on the run while simultaneously tracking down a new immortal who has arrived in the world.
Although The Old Guard falls back on the familiar a bit too often, the world it builds and its charismatic cast keep things interesting and offer plenty of potential, even if it doesn’t end up being the franchise-spawning origin story it aspires to be.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Love & Basketball) from a script penned by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard is based on the comic book series of the same name created by Rucka and Leandro Fernández.
Much like Extraction, Netflix’s recent action film that cast Marvel Studios veteran Chris Hemsworth in the lead role, The Old Guard puts its high-profile star front and center and lets Theron remind us why she’s one of Hollywood’s most prominent female action heroes right now. Theron is a one-woman killing machine in The Old Guard and looks as comfortable dispatching wave after wave of heavily armed, nameless bad guys as any male lead out there.
Like some of the best action heroes on the screen right now, Theron finds just the right balance of gracefulness, brutality, and efficiency of motion in her fight sequences, but she’s not alone in delivering a good performance in The Old Guard.
The film’s international cast is filled out by Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli as the trio of immortal soldiers who have allied themselves with Theron’s character for several centuries, forming an unconventional family borne of watching everyone else they know grow old and die. KiKi Layne, who delivered a breakthrough performance in the drama If Beale Street Could Talk, portrays an American soldier who must come to terms with her own newfound immortality and makes an impressive pivot to the action genre.
Rounding out the cast is Oscar-nominated 12 Years A Slave actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as a former CIA agent investigating Theron’s team and Harry Potter franchise actor Harry Melling as a billionaire industrialist who sees profit-making potential in the immortals.
All four of the actors cast alongside Theron as un-killable soldiers hold their own remarkably well through both the action sequences and the quieter moments, with Kenzari and Marinelli particularly memorable as warriors who fought on opposite sides of the Crusades, only to fall in love after dying on the battlefield. Layne is also a pleasant surprise as a capable action hero and handles the gunplay as well as the more dramatic elements as her character adjusts to life with her new, undying family.
Given his resume, Ejiofor feels a bit underserved by the story, while Melling is appropriately smarmy and morally bankrupt as the film’s primary villain. His character’s ultimate fate is satisfying on its own, but will likely be even more so for anyone unable to shake Melling’s association with Dudley Dursley, the spoiled brat he famously (or perhaps infamously) portrayed throughout the Harry Potter series.
Sadly, The Old Guard goes in a few too many predictable directions to hold any surprises.
Time and time again, the film layers one well-worn action trope after another on top of its otherwise intriguing supernatural premise, preventing it from standing out as much as it should, given its talented cast. There’s a sense of familiarity that runs through so much of The Old Guard that it never feels entirely fresh and new — something it needs to be if it aspires to be the first installment of a series.
The story does a nice job of world-building when it sets out to do so, however, and Rucka’s script makes the history of the film’s immortals feel like fertile ground for future stories — or at the very least, extended flashbacks. Each of the immortals introduced in the film feels like a fully fleshed-out character, and their individual journeys in the time before they met Theron’s character carry as much importance as their adventures with her.
That last quality is important because the film goes out of its way to lay the groundwork for a sequel.
On its own, The Old Guard doesn’t generate the kind of excitement that would normally make a sequel a foregone conclusion, but the world it offers up is undeniably interesting and packed with potential.
To be fair, The Old Guard does a lot of things very, very well — particularly when it comes Theron and Layne’s performances and the future stories it teases. But the film ultimately falls short of doing anything that generates the sort of cheer-worthy, buzz-generating moments that typically convince a major studio to fast-track the next chapter of the saga.
Netflix isn’t the typical studio, though, and that could work in The Old Guard‘s favor. Prince-Bythewood, Rucka, and Theron (who also serves as a producer on the film) have crafted a compelling world of espionage, action, and secret immortals that could be well-served with another tale now that we’re past the introductory adventure. The Old Guard didn’t quite do enough to absolutely ensure that happens, but it would still be nice to see what the future holds for the film’s colorful characters.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Charlize Theron, The Old Guard premieres July 10 on Netflix.
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