For every Netflix original movie I watch, I’ve made myself a little bingo card that’s generally more memorable than watching the movies themselves (looking at you 6 Under the Ground or whatever you’re called).
Just looking at the trailer for Netflix’s The Old Guard gave me close to bingo in the first minute.
Big name actor headlining along with lesser known stars? Check.
Different scenes cobbled together with no regard for cohesion? Check.
A trailer that if you watched twenty times back to back, you’d still have a more enjoyable experience than watching the film? Absolutely!
Whoops, looks like I’ve just given away my opinion ten lines in. Now, put down the pitchforks so I can explain.
The plot follows four immortals as they travel around the world, foiling ne’er do wells and righting wrongs in situations that are about as morally complex as beans on toast. You might think the fact they’re immortal is an important plot twist but that’s brushed aside rather quickly, because the film’s got action scenes to get to and they’re not going to slow down for little speedbumps like “characterisation” or “competent pacing”. The plot, such as it is, follows the group as they are hunted by people that want to harvest their lifeforce for some vague typical evil corporation reason. The film spends the run time skirting around deeper themes, keeping their musings to very surface level arguments that the film isn’t really interested in exploring in favour of more explosions and grim monologues.
The main protagonist is Charlize Theron’s Andy, I assume named that because the writer got distracted looking through a list of popular boy’s names on Friday afternoon as the first beers were being cracked open. Andy is standard action hero protagonist #3,652 complete with angsty “too old for this shit” attitude that had me rolling my eyes with every line out of her mouth. However, the film soon realises that they don’t have any character to weigh down with exposition and slams down their ‘surprise protagonist’ trap card in a panic, pulling a new protagonist out of their ass that the film can barely summon the effort to explain.
The new character is really nothing more than an audience stand-in and a very dense one at that. 95% of their dialogue is simply asking questions that most of the audience won’t care to have answered because they just want to get to the action and the people that want answers to those questions will ultimately be left unsatisfied as the film offers little more than an indistinct shrug as they focus on cutting any scene that could be used to give the film some personality beyond its generic conventions.
Audience stand-in notwithstanding, at least the other characters are intriguing right? Wrong. The other characters in the Burger King kids' club aren’t as grim and angsty as Andy thank Christ, but they’re not given any time to develop save for a brief conversation at the end of the film to give the illusion of emotional weight. Andy herself has lengthy backstory dedicated to her past adventures that piledrives the film's pacing into a concrete pillar every time these scenes show up.
With the main characters we’re supposed to connect with being little more than planks of wood with varying facial expressions drawn on throughout the film, maybe we can latch on to a charismatic villain? Again, that’s a no. The film pulls out a well-worn list of action movie villains and rolls evil mega corporation subset A point two - big pharma, which could be seen as problematic in our current situation if the films quality was any higher than “Blockbuster bargain bin”. As for charisma, the corporation’s main boss is the equivalent of wet bread. He’s got his own private army of mercenaries because it’s not a generic action movie if there’s not fodder for the heroes to enact some consequence and guilt-free violence on.
Now, with the scoreboard so far being a wash, surely the action makes up for it so there’s something to recommend right? Don’t try to fool me with your Earth logic. The film kneecaps itself from the get-go as the premise of immortal characters drains any suspense or tension from any of the action scenes at all. The problem with having immortal characters means there are absolutely no stakes in the fight scenes because the heroes can’t die. Unfortunately, the screenwriter’s five-year-old wasn’t around to explain this and we’re left to wonder what alternate timeline we could be experiencing instead of this clusterfuck.
For the third act twist, the bingo card ‘free square’ as it were, Andy has stopped healing for some reason but hey the screenwriter didn’t worry so why should you. If you have any basic story instincts, you’d assume that this means Andy is going to die and leave the expositional sandbag as the de facto leader. This doesn’t end up happening and I know what you’re thinking.
Hang on, if you were expecting Andy to die and this didn’t happen that’s a subversion of expectations. Isn’t that a good thing?
It would have been if I had cared about any of the characters in this film at all.
So, with any stakes ripped out of the film’s chest from the very beginning, the film can’t do much beyond doubling down on the whole ‘Ooh how are our heroes going to get out of this one?’ action scenes while hoping the audience blacks out and forgets their characters can’t die. The most blatant example of this is when one of the generic enemies shoves a shotgun in Wood Plank 4’s mouth and pulls the trigger. Wood Planks 3 and Sandbag act anguished and for a brief second, I hoped that they were dead just to give the movie some stakes and make it a little interesting. That was dashed as the character ended up being fine and killing more fodder seconds later as if nothing happened.
In the end, the entire film can be summed up like this.
I paused the film thinking we were wrapping up and I could move on with my life and leave this film discarded on the side of life’s highway to fade from the popular zeitgeist along with Pogs and parachute pants, only for it to turn out there was forty five minutes to go. Granted some of the choreography in the action scenes is really well done and enjoyable but it only brings the rest of the film’s failings into sharp relief.
Do yourself a favour and just watch the film's trailer while listening to a podcast about water filtration. You’ll have a film that’s as long as it needs to be (read: 2:38 minutes) and you’ll learn something and won’t have wasted two hours of your life that you’ll never get back.