What does it feel like to live forever? Audiences might find out sitting through certain scenes of Netflix’s latest lockdown release The Old Guard, a film that sees Charlize Theron lead a gang of immortal, centuries-old warriors battling against an evil pharmaceutical boss (Harry Melling) determined to profit off their gift.
It’s a fascinating concept adapted from Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s comic book of the same name (with Rucker adapting his own script for direct Gina Prince-Bythewood), and promises a world of inventive battles, existential turmoil and high-concept historical storytelling.
But the finished film doesn’t live up to this promise, the end result oddly low-key and even dull at times. Throughout the film the gang of underdeveloped mercenaries mope their way through a series of gunfights interspersed with long, drawn out exposition scenes that feel like they last a few centuries themselves, each character carefully explaining the rules of their world to newcomer Nile (KiKi Layne).
Said rules are that every few centuries, somebody – apparently always a soldier – magically becomes immortal, healing any injury quickly and returning from death in moments. Charlize Theron’s Andy is the oldest of the bunch, having gained the power about 6,000 years ago, followed by Crusaders-turned-lovers Nicky and Joe (Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari), then Matthias Schoenaerts’ 1800s man Booker, then US Marine Nile.
Helpfully, the gang also have visions of each other when they first come back from death, which allows them to locate Nile – less helpfully, at some point their healing also stops working, meaning every death (though probably a dramatically satisfying one) could be their last.
The premise intrigues, but the film doesn’t deliver. Thoroughly adapted to the modern world, you get no sense that Andy’s team are out of time, or are people who’ve lived for centuries – they just seem like friendly co-workers, out for a teambuilding exercise with real bullets instead of paintballs. Only Theron’s leader gets any real shading, and that’s only because she has her entire backstory (a missing best friend) clunkily laid out by her pals early in the film.
This might not have mattered if the film delivered truly bone-crunching action and excitement, but the fight scenes are a bit lacklustre as well. Bar the odd memorable moment – Theron’s Andy re-righting herself using a wall alcove, one of the team bursting in through a window unexpectedly – the battles largely blur into one another, with few moves or setpieces that really stand out.
There are moments that do show what might have been – Chiwetel Ejiofor’s soft-spoken Intelligence officer brings some real heart alongside Schoenaerts’ soulful Booker, while flashbacks to Theron fighting in historical wars are among the film’s most interesting scenes – but overall, The Old Guard doesn’t live up to its potential.
Unlike its heroes, it’s a bit dead on arrival.