Years from now, critics will look upon the year 2020 as the Year of the Streaming Blockbusters. With the release of numerous studio pictures into movie theaters put on hold due to the pandemic, moviegoers have turned to streaming services to get their fill of new movies. While Netflix has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic, Apple TV and Hulu have also gotten into the game. While having an alternative is always preferable to nothing, the alternative has been a decidedly different bag.
Streaming blockbusters are not new. Netflix, Amazon and others have been releasing original or acquired movies on their streaming platforms for years. Before this year, many of us watched them without giving the activity a second thought, probably because the weekend’s new box office releases didn’t justify getting off our couches, into our cars and into a theater. With movie theaters still closed and the major studios pushing back the release dates of their big releases indefinitely, streaming blockbusters are getting all of the attention. Be careful what you wish for, streaming services.
The Old Guard (or TOG) is symptomatic of previous blockbusters Netflix has released. Like a $3 protein bar, it comes in shiny packaging, healthy ingredients and impressive production values. And like the aforementioned protein bar, it is easily consumed, digested and quickly forgotten. Which is a shame when we’re talking about a movie starring Charlize Theron. Theron is too good of an actress for this material, but I’ll get to her momentarily.
If you’ve been a casual viewer of action movies over the last twenty years, elements of The Old Guard will be immediately familiar to you. Charlize Theron heads up a small group of warriors who cannot die. Theron’s character Andy can’t remember how old she is. The Booker, the most recent member of the team, joined after dying in the Napoleonic war in 1812. They either fight on the side of good or evil, “depending on the century” as one character dryly states.
When one of TOG is killed, their bodies slowly heal themselves, wounds sealing up, bullets ejecting from their skin, in a way that reminded me of The X-Men’s Wolverine. He was another character who could not be killed, a cynical professional who grew tired of trying to figure out who was good and who was evil. Of course, Wolverine’s mutation that caused his body to heal itself was predated by vampires. Vampires were the original beings who lived for milenia, could kill at the speed of sound and (usually) could not be killed. In a similar way, TOG dispatches their enemies with violent efficiency. When one (or all) of TOG are killed, their bodies quickly reform, their bones healing and snapping back into place to sounds not unlike a bowl of rice krispies.
Other films with similar themes similar to TOG came to mind while watching. Highlander. Wanted. There were probably others that I could have conjured up, but I told my brain to stop analyzing and just watch the movie.
The plot involves TOG being asked to go on One More Mission to save a group of school children who’ve been kidnapped in Sudan. Andy (Theron) has just about enough of humanity, thank you, and would rather sit this one out. Booker, another member of TOG and less cynical than Andy, convinces the team to go on a rescue mission. The mission itself is a ploy to get TOG out of hiding. A man who runs a pharmaceutical company in England, who certainly is The World’s Most Annoying Englishman, wants to use TOG as source material for a new line of drugs that will alleviate suffering while also earning him immense profits. Meanwhile, Nial, a soldier in Afghanistan, seemingly dies but comes back to life. Andy seeks her out and asks (well, not really) to join TOG. Nial and Andy fight but later makeup. Nial wants to leave and be with her family a bit longer, but changes course when she realizes Andy has been betrayed. An assault on the Big Pharma Building takes up the third act, whereupon TOG essentially kills most everyone as if they’re playing a video game in God mode. The movie sets up a sequel, which, objectively speaking, should be interesting, now that all of the exposition and world building is out of the way.
Most of the dialog is perfunctory, with rare exceptions. At one point, one member of TOG expresses his love for another member, a love which started when they killed each other during The Crusades. There are a few other heartfelt moments in the movie, but the one I just described is the pinnacle. Which is a shame, really. You would think that people who have lived thousands of years would have interesting things to say, but apparently that’s not the case.
Charlize Theron is such a good actress, she can make you feel sorry for Megyn Kelly. When not giving Oscar-caliber performances, she’s been keeping herself busy in action vehicles. Mad Max:Fury Road, Atomic Blond, The Fate of the Furious, Snow White and The Huntsman are recent films she’s starred in that preceded TOG. While those movies provided Theron with the ability to have some fun amidst the action, this movie curiously has her character deliver most of her lines in a bland, monotone voice with minimal emotion. Her glamorous appearance has been hidden behind black clothes and a severe black haircut. She looks more like someone looking for the local goth bar circa 1992 than someone who’s lived thousands of years and cannot die. (I could say that they could be one in the same, but that would be bitchy, even for me.)
Why Theron chose this material is a mystery. Granted, she can show she can still kick butt (cinematically speaking) in her mid-forties. But there just isn’t much to her character. A very early scene shows her deciphering where a piece of baklava was made. Later, there are scenes of her and her BFF Quynh slicing and dicing enemies while dressed in medieval costumes. Later, Andy and Quynh share a laugh over the possibility of being burned alive by the church. That brief moment of gallows humor quickly fades when they both realize that Quynh is being sentenced to a fate worse than death, the depiction of which is probably the most horrifying moment in the picture. The point I’m making is that the movie could have been a lot more fun, had it allowed itself to be. Having fun does not require delving into camp territory, which this movie seems to be trying very hard to avoid. Tonally, the movie essentially switches between somber dialog moments and frantic action pieces. More levity would have balanced out the proceedings tremendously, and made the experience much more enjoyable.
I’ve read criticisms that since Netflix is a data-driven company, the plots of their originals seem written by a computer. That would be a fair criticism for TOG, where there is little room for flair or originality in the proceedings. I had a similar feeling watching Extraction, which starred Chris Helmsworth. The movie spared no expense, shooting on location, extravagant action sequences. Helmsworth is a charming, funny actor, but had no opportunity to show those skills in Extraction. I felt the same way about TOG. Where is Charlize Theron, and why have you replaced her with a cheerless robot?
If you have a Netflix subscription, I recommend seeing TOG. You’ve already paid for it. You might as well get your money’s worth.