'The Old Guard' Review: An Immortal Bore That Wastes A Great Premise

If there's one thing we can all agree on in these divisive times, it's that the sight of Charlize Theron kicking some ass is fun. Be it Mad Max: Fury Road or Atomic Blonde, Theron has the physicality and screen presence that makes the sight of her throwing down and pummelling some fools spectacular cinema. So why then is The Old Guard, a movie where Theron does almost nothing but fight, so dang dull?

Based on the comic series written by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay), The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries who move through time, fighting for what they think is right. Much of the time, that fighting results in horrible, and even fatal, injuries. But since the group is immortal, that's not such a big deal. Like a bunch of Wolverines, they're able to quickly heal their wounds and get back on their feet, even if they have a gun fired directly into their brains. It's both a blessing and a curse: Sure, the group can live long and survive all injury, but they're also forced to live lonely lives. If they dare to try to have friends and family, they also end up having to watch those friends and family members inevitably grow old and die.

The leader of the group is Andromache of Scythia, or Andy for short. Played by Theron, Andy is tough-as-nails and also haunted by her centuries-spanning past. She's also ready to throw in the towel and call the whole mercenary thing quits, but has a change of heart when she learns about Nile (KiKi Layne), a Marine who has suddenly discovered that she, too, is immortal.

Andy recruits Nile, and soon she the new member meets the rest of the team: the brooding Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) and lovers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). They all have their own tragic backstories, some of which we see via flashbacks, some of which we see via terribly Photoshopped images that take the actors' heads and paste them into some Civil War daguerreotypes.

The concept of a group of immortal warriors is enticing, but The Old Guard wastes its premise by never telling us much about them, as Rucka's script only really makes time for Andy and Nile. There is a lovely little moment where Joe and Nicky profess their literally undying love for each other, but it's presented in such a clumsy manner that it doesn't pack much of a punch. Still, there's something refreshing about a big action movie that features two queer characters in a healthy, loving, and immortal relationship.

Theron is once again adept at throwing a punch and landing a kick, but sadly, she acts as if she's on autopilot here. Her performance isn't bad, it just often plays out as if Theron is merely going through the motions when we all know she can do so much better. Layne fares a bit better, playing Nile as a character constantly amazed at her newfound immortality and struggling with having to leave her past behind.

Not helping matters is some groan-inducing dialogue. We get scenes where Andy says things like: "I lead a group of immortals. An army, I guess." You guess? Okay, sure. Whatever. Other clunkers: When Nile asks Andy how old she is, Andy replies: "Old." "How old?" Nile presses. Andy: "Too old." And then there's the film's villain, an evil pharmaceutical giant who smugly announces "I'm the youngest CEO in pharma!" in a manner that suggests that if he had a big mustache, he'd be twirling it.

Played by Harry Melling, this youngest CEO in pharma wants to capture the immortals so he can steal their genetic secrets and use them to make some miracle drugs. Helping him is Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a weary, well-intentioned guy who keeps acting shocked whenever his clearly evil employer does something clearly evil. This saddles the supremely talented Ejiofor with lines like, "I thought we were doing this for science!" This sort of exchange happens approximately five different times.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood does well with the action scenes – a fist-fight between Andy and Nile on an airplane is exceedingly well-blocked, and a lot of the action is presented in a coherent way that avoids the type of quick-cuts usually used to hide stunt performers. Unfortunately, whenever the action stops, The Old Guard sags, with emotional moments that never really land, and big dramatic scenes that lack any genuine drama. Even the action begins to grow tiresome after a while, especially since all of it is scored to forgettable (and often annoying) electro-pop music that sounds more suited for an Express dressing room in the mall rather than a big action movie. And more often than not, there are multiple scenes staged in near-impenetrable darkness. Be it a stylish choice or one made for economy, it doesn't work, and you'll be straining to make out what the hell is going on.

The biggest mistake The Old Guard makes is the same mistake so many modern film adaptations of established material make these days: it's all set-up. Yes, this is one of those adaptations that's actually a secret prequel. This isn't so much about The Old Guard as it is about how the group becomes The Old Guard. There's even a post-credit scene that's directly meant to set-up a franchise. It's the dumb mistake that filmmakers keep making again, and again, and again: a story that says, "You know all that cool stuff you like from the source material? The stuff we've been hinting at? Well, we're saving that for the sequel!" Note to filmmakers: Do you know what's a better idea? Giving viewers that cool stuff in the first movie instead, and not counting your sequels before they hatch.

/Film Review: 5 out of 10