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Film Review: “The Old Guard” Mostly Delivers on Its Promising Premise

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 9th, 2020

Film poster: “The Old Guard”

The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Based on the eponymous graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, The Old Guard bursts on the screen in a paroxysm of blood-letting that rarely lets up, its profile of a band of mercenaries splattered with the entrails of those who stand in their way. With Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde), as Andy, at their head, the foursome are near-invincible, made even more so with the arrival of new recruit Nile (Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk). Yes, there may be some men around as window dressing, but it’s the women who drive the narrative here. And drive at a fast pace they do, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) rarely taking her foot of the gas pedal of her high-octane mise-en-scène. At times the movie suffers from its ponderous exposition, along with an over-the-top turn from Harry Melling (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), but it nevertheless offers sufficient thrills, along with an enjoyable fantastical twist, to ensure that a good time is had by all.

When we first meet Andy and her team – comprised, beyond her, of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts, Far from the Madding Crowd), Joe (Marwan Kenzari, The Angel) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli, Martin Eden) – they are contemplating next steps after a series of jobs that have left them emotionally and physically depleted, Andy especially. Against their better judgment (and standard protocol), they accept an assignment from a former CIA operative, Copley, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Come Sunday). When things don’t go quite as planned (they should have listened to their inner reservations), they find themselves on the run, though soon the hunted become the hunters, aiming to strike back.

l-r: Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlize Theron, Luca Marinelli and Kiki Layne in THE OLD GUARD. Photo Credit: AIMEE SPINKS / NETFLIX ©2020

Meanwhile, a wounded U.S. marine (Nile) dreams of them and they of her, their mystical connection explained in sometimes tedious dialogue. Before they can all fully connect and forge ahead as an enhanced unit, enter Melling’s nefarious pharmaceutical executive, who hopes to mine the team’s DNA (they have particular supernatural properties, which we discover early on) to earn big money. Sure, he claims he also wants to save the world, but it’s hard to believe megalomaniacs in such affairs, given the long, evil history of supervillains living in shiny glass and steel buildings (thank you, James Bond). Will he succeed in stealing that which makes our heroes unique? Watch and find out.

The film is quite violent, which is not unusual for a Charlize Theron flick, but is for Prince-Bythewood. That’s not necessarily a problem, per se – though perhaps what we need in the world now is less mayhem – but it can get a little tiresome, despite the director’s skillful handling of the action scenes. On the other hand, given the female leads and diversity of the cast, there is at least some novelty in who gets to kick (excuse me, rip apart) some butt. Of far greater interest, at least to this viewer, however, are the sci-fi/fantasy elements, those moments (when not delivered through overly precise explanation) where the joy is in the plot and not the blunt-force trauma. The music does the movie no favors, either, songs rotating on the soundtrack in a frenzy of sonic channel-surfing that helps nothing. Despite these issues, there is far more that works, and The Old Guard delivers enough dramatic pizzazz to earn its own reward: the sure-fire sequel announced at the end. Bring it on.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in THE OLD GUARD. Credit: AIMEE SPINKS / NETFLIX ©2020
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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