In a way, previous action movies beat “The Old Guard” to its own punch.
Everyone from Dominic Torreto to James Bond acts as if they’re immortal, running into enemy fire or jumping over ravines with little thought for life or limb.
You know Hollywood, Inc. wouldn’t dare kill them off. There’s comfort in that silent agreement, even if it reduces the dramatic stakes. In “The Old Guard” the heroes are literally immortal.
There’s a catch, but just go with it.
They’re also clinging to action movie tropes from start to finish despite attempts to shake free from the stale formula.
Charlize Theron plays Andy, a mercenary so old she counts her years in the thousands. She and her squad of fellow immortals wearily fight the battles others can’t, including a first-act effort to rescue Sudanese children.
Their exploits catch the attention of Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-CIA agent with designs of his own for the troupe. Meanwhile, Andy’s gang, including Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari), sense a connection with another soldier like them.
Only this budding immortal, a hard-nosed Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne), doesn’t know her powers … yet.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) attempts plenty of character development despite the genre trappings. The story, based on a comic-book series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández, suggests the moral weight of our heroes’ adventures.
It’s one thing to save the day. What if you keep saving them year after year, century after century?
It’s a slick way to frame the group’s ability to shake off gunfire, but screenwriter Rucka isn’t sure how to leverage that context. The dialogue is banal when it isn’t grating your teeth. A few smart morsels emerge, but hardly enough to deepen our heroes’ plight.
It doesn’t help that the true villain of the story is a Big Pharma type (played with gallons of crude oil by Harry Melling), whose nastiness hides an ethical question the movie conveniently dodges. Throw it on the pile of missed opportunities, like Nile’s longing for her family and the bond between Andy and Booker.
Theron’s Andy is in charge in more ways than one. She brings a movie star swagger to the role, but her inner conflict remains untapped. That matters less during the action sequences, wildly overrated but still cool and competent.
It’s a sign of the times that an Oscar winner like Theron mostly plays action heroines now. Think “Atomic Blonde,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and her presence in the “Furious” franchise. The roles fit her as snugly as her form-fitting clothes, and she moves like a demon despite their unforgiving nature.
It doesn’t help that “Blonde” delivered more thrills than any sequence here.
“The Old Guard” packs a whiff of woke, from making two of the immortals a gay couple (smart at first, then overplayed) to the lazy attacks on both Big Pharma and faith. Some formula bullet points are unavoidable in modern Hollywood.
A shrewd rewrite could have elevated “The Old Guard” into the upper echelon of modern action films. As is, the Netflix feature offers a diverting blast of genre tropes and movie star gravitas.
HiT or Miss: “The Old Guard” looks like a major upgrade from the Standard Hollywood Action Movie, but the devil is in the details.