Zeist and the Zeitgeist
We should have been deep in the summer season for big dumb movies by now, but of course things are different this year. People have been predicting the death of the traditional blockbuster for years, and if – as seems to be a distinct possibility – cinemas don't fully recover in the post-virus world, it may well be the big dumb movie follows them into oblivion. But for the time being they are hanging on, not least because the streamers are making them as well as the traditional studios. Which brings us to Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Old Guard, which, if not quite a big dumb movie, is certainly a medium-large slightly dim one.
Things get underway with a flashback introducing us to Charlize Theron's character, Andy. The movie finds Theron in the ass-kicking-babe/man-with-breasts mode which seems to be her default mode of expression in most of the movies she makes these days, for Andy is the leader of a team of elite international mercenaries, made up of Frenchman Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Italian Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and non-specific North African/Middle Easterner Joe (Marwan Kenzari). (Andy herself is implied to be of Greek origin, not that she particularly looks it.) It seems that the team have been on a break due to Andy become disillusioned by the terrible state of the world (well, maybe she has a point) and is inclined to pack in their business activities (they are that particular type of movie mercenary who only do jobs for virtuous causes).
However, they are contacted for (all together now) One Last Job, courtesy of former contact Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who used to belong to the English-accent division of the CIA. A bunch of innocent children have been kidnapped by a militia in Africa and are desperately in need of rescuing, and the team agrees to go in. They make their way through the guards like an especially salty dose of salts, and descend to where the children are supposedly being held captive – only to all be mown down by bad guys with automatic weapons! Crikey!
Not unconnected to their fate is that of Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a US Marine serving in Afghanistan. She and her team are likewise looking for a bad guy and seem to have found him, but things take a regrettable turn and Nile finds herself with a grisly mortal wound she expires from in fairly short order. But no! She revives in the infirmary, completely healthy, without even a scar for her trouble – having had some peculiar dreams about Andy and the others…
Well, you know, they've been talking about trying to do a Highlander remake for years now – apparently Ryan Reynolds was on board at one point – but I suspect that one way or another, The Old Guard will have taken its head (so to speak). If you did Highlander again nowadays, it would probably end up looking very much like this film. Certainly, the similarities between the two are extremely pronounced in some ways, mainly in the way they don't seem particularly worried about coming up with a back-story that makes any sense or has any apparent logic to it. Why are some people born immortal and seemingly destined to battle their way down through the centuries? In both films, the answer is that They Just Are (with the implicit corollary Look, Don't Worry About This, It's Cool). Why do the immortals in this film dream of each other until they meet? They Just Do. Why is their immortality seemingly quite random and arbitrary in its limitations? It Just Is.
Of course, one has to bear in mind that this is a big dumb movie (or a medium-large slightly dim movie) and none of this really matters: the immortality is just there to enable the story, and more importantly, the Cool Stuff (squads of heavily armed soldiers being scythed down by an ass-kicking babe with an axe, for instance). We should also bear in mind that attempts to rationalise this sort of thing never end well, as the producers of the Highlander franchise discovered when they found themselves making a script revealing their immortals were actually exiled political dissidents from the planet Zeist. Probably best not to worry, enjoy the fight choreography and remember that this is all ultimately cartoon stuff (based on a comic-book series, after all).
That said, even a cartoon action fantasy has other things to think about these days, which is why The Old Guard ticks every box you would expect it to with mechanical diligence. Nearly every demographic and minority is appropriately foregrounded, with the obvious exception: the role of bad guy is reserved for the straight white male, naturally. It's all done without much sign of wit or imagination or self-awareness.
Now, for me the problem isn't that this is a movie with feminist and LGBT elements. I have no problem with these kinds of themes, provided the films are well-made. The issue is that it doesn't really feel like they inform the heart of the film at all – the heart of this film is immortal warriors being menaced by dark, exploitative forces before bouncing back and tearing their way through them, in other words cartoon action fantasy – and it just feels like the film's meeting its diversity quotient in order to get the approval of the Progressive Agenda Committee. As a result it feels just a bit too calculated and soulless.
Perhaps this is why the film feels oddly joyless and dour too: it doesn't feel able to enjoy the potential for romance and genuine fantasy implicit in the notion of its characters living for centuries and experiencing countless lives. Everyone is doing their serious face throughout. You can take this sort of thing too seriously, in more ways than one. As a result the good things in The Old Guard never really manage to lift the film – and there are good things in it; the action choreography is decent, and there are a number of very good performances in it, too. Layne has presence, Schoenaerts is as good as ever, and Harry Melling is a hissably evil cartoon bad guy (a villain with evil designs on immensely long-lived beings with regenerative powers? What would Mellings' grandpa have said?). But in the end, the film never manages to shake off the sense of being rather like lots of things you've seen before, and calculated and glum to boot.