Without a doubt, the practical effects and fight choreography in The Old Guard is absolutely stellar, but that doesn’t save the film from being something of a downer. First of all, Charlize Theron is a year older than me, and boy that just doesn’t seem right. The South African actress who prides herself on doing much of her own stunt work is remarkably ageless, athletic, and director Gina Prince-Blythewood frequently holds the camera steady so the audience can get a good look at Theron in action.
Theron paid the price for dedication—after filming ended she wound up requiring three surgeries to put her back together. The actress injured her knee, elbow, and left thumb, with the thumb suffering a complete ligament tear—three weeks prior to the project wrapping. Theron just iced and wrapped and kept rolling.
The Old Guard stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez told Insider, “I have to put her up there with Keanu Reeves. Her and Keanu are the highest when it comes to stars who work really, really hard on the stunts. They both go the distance. It’s to the point that sometimes you have to send them home. She wouldn’t leave sometimes.”
The immaculate nature of the combat sequences makes sense within the context of the story—Theron plays a nearly immortal being, Andromeda—or Andy—who leads a team of other almost-immortals. Having fought together for hundreds of years they function as a well-oiled machine, nearly able to read one another’s minds.
The plot kicks off with Andy and company walking straight into a trap set up by a CIA operative, Copley, played with great skill by Chiwetel Eijojor. Copley’s wife has recently passed from ALS, and he has just gotten back into the game of international machinations. He hires the team to liberate girls kidnapped from a Sudanese school. Once inside the stronghold, the team doesn’t find the girls, but rather cameras filming evidence of their supernatural ability to come back from the dead.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Nile, a Marine with a heart of gold played by newcomer Kiki Layne, has her throat slit in the line of duty. Nile dies. But then comes back again, healed to perfection. Andy and her team all simultaneously dream about the new member of the old guard—just as she dreams of them.
Andy abducts Nile from her base in Afghanistan, which leads to a very nice brawl aboard a plane transporting heroin to France. Nile is a worthy adversary for Andy, and Layne does well going toe-to-toe with Oscar winner Theron. Grudgingly, Nile agrees to join forces with Andy.
Nile is introduced to the other members of the old guard. Joe and Nicky, who are deeply in love, and Booker, who is the brains of the crew. Nile learns that past members have eventually lost their immortality and died of war wounds. Moreover, Andy’s best friend, Quynh, played by Van Veronica Ngo, was sentenced to death for witchcraft, placed in an iron maiden, and dropped into the ocean. Quynh has been trapped for 500 years drowning to death, coming back to life, and drowning again. Nile dreams of Quynh, and tells the team that unsurprisingly, she’s gone mad.
And here is where The Old Guard starts to feel a little bit like a cinematic iron maiden itself. For an action thriller, there’s an awful lot of sitting around and people essentially saying, “Hey, you wanna think about something sad for awhile?” and the answer is always, “I am 100% down to sit in the dark and think about this super sad stuff.”
Thematically, The Old Guard is basically about intergenerational trauma contained within one impossibly long and tragic lifespan. That and it also serves as a giant F— you to Big Pharma, which is a lot more fun. Huge bonus points to whoever came up with the idea naming the bad guy Merrick, but then making his company logo exactly the same font and color as the logo for Merck. It’s not subtle, but I doubt it was designed to be.
As it turns out, Merrick, played by a brilliantly cast Harry Melling, is out to capture the immortals and test-torture them for as long as it takes to discover the secret of their inability to die. They will live out their lives in the iron maiden of the laboratory.
Overall, the film is competently rendered in all respects except one—I have no idea what they were thinking when they cobbled the soundtrack together, but I can only hope they were drunk. It’s as if a dartboard was put up with a wide variety of songs in all sorts of genres, and for each scene they threw a dart. Wherever it landed, that’s what got slapped on top of the action. The choices make no logical or emotional sense.
Weirdly bad soundtrack and maudlin notes aside, The Old Guard has a lot to offer fans of well done action. As with other big Netflix action films, such as Extraction (2020), the movie benefits from filming on location all over the world. It feels like a big budget theatrical release, and in another time, it would have been. Charlize Theron has definitely carved out a spot for herself as a leading action protagonist, and proves once again she’s the real deal in The Old Guard.