Netflix's 'The Old Guard' stars an immortal, badass Charlize Theron — but lacks conviction

"The Old Guard" seems tired of its own genre. That exhaustion is understandable and even perceptive, but it's also boring.
Image: THE OLD GUARD (2020)
Charlize Theron and company try to use their murderous skills for good in "The Old Guard" on Netflix.Aimee Spinks / Netflix
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By Noah Berlatsky, cultural critic

"We're not helping," Andy (Charlize Theron) says bleakly at the beginning of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Netflix film "The Old Guard." The film is eager to convince her (and us) that guns, axes, amazing fight scenes and explosions can work their usual magic, resolving all conflicts and defeating all evil. But the questions Andy raises aren't so easy to dismiss. Rarely has a movie about immortality felt so moribund.

In contrast to "Highlander," and lots of vampire films, Andy's immortals are all good guys.

"The Old Guard" refers to a group of four, ageless super soldiers led by Andy. Taking a page from that old favorite "Highlander," the characters here gain their powers inexplicably; one day they just start to heal and discover they can't be killed. They are pursued by a standard-issue evil scientist, Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to experiment on them to discover the key to immortality. Meanwhile, they try to aid a new immortal who has just discovered her powers, U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne).

But in contrast to "Highlander," and lots of vampire films, Andy's immortals are all good guys. They choose to work together to do noble deeds, like rescuing kidnapped children in Sudan from terrorists. They act, in short, like action movie heroes and use their ultraviolent skills to protect the weak and smite the iniquitous.

Andy, though, has begun to worry that killing is just killing. "We can do some good," her teammate Nicky (Luca Marinelli) assures her; Andy is unconvinced. "Have you been watching the news lately?" she says with Theron's trademark deadpan. "'Some' good means nothing."

Andy is the oldest of the immortals; she won't say her exact age, but she could be over a thousand. Her disillusionment seems linked more to her own personal ennui than to current events. But still her skepticism resonates with our various current catastrophes. Action movie world-saving feels unusually irrelevant amid a pandemic. You can't cut a virus in half with a double-headed ax, no matter how badass you look doing it.

"The Old Guard" does toy with alternatives to the Hollywood default of solving every problem with massive firepower and acrobatic choreography. The group's CIA frenemy Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) dreams of curing cancer and ending suffering through science.

The team itself is diverse; its members are multi-racial and explicitly queer. Nicky and his lover, Joe (Marwan Kenzari), get many of the best scenes, passionately declaring their love for one another while homophobic antagonists look on in comic and ineffectual horror. Who needs guns when queer love can shake the world?

These flirtations with salvation through science, solidarity or sex are never fully explored or endorsed, though. Instead, "The Old Guard" doubles down on validating violence. Every life saved has ripple effects. Through the centuries, people they've rescued have gone on to become great researchers, Nobel Peace Prize winners and other do-gooders. Whenever the team saves someone, all humanity benefits.

These flirtations with salvation through science, solidarity, or sex are never fully explored or endorsed.

This sounds good in isolation, but as the movie progresses, the logic starts to come apart, much like the bodies of the dozens and dozens of antagonists Andy and her friends murder with dispassionate efficiency. If every life is precious, then what are they doing slaughtering their way through immortality in one long fight scene? Nile the Marine blanches at the thought of spending eternity in an endless cycle of slaughter. She wonders aloud whether it might not be more fulfilling to spend time with her family, even if she will eventually outlive them.

But the action movie narrative cannot be denied. Mayhem has been promised and mayhem will be delivered.

The point here isn't that viewers should feel guilty for watching action movies. Rather, "The Old Guard" itself seems to feel vaguely guilty for being an action movie. It has noticed that shooting up "bad guys" and saving "the innocent" doesn't necessarily solve the world's problems. So it tries to justify them.

But justifying ruins the fun of the action shoot 'em ups, where the whole point is enjoying the carnage without thinking too hard. Gina Prince-Bythewood delivers the pulp stunt battles, the betrayals, the tragic backstories and the swagger you expect from an action movie. But it all lacks conviction. Like Andy, "The Old Guard" seems tired of its own genre. That exhaustion is understandable, and even perceptive. But it's also a bore, immortal or otherwise.