' ' Cinema Romantico: The Old Guard

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Old Guard

It’s an inherent and unavoidable flaw in most action movies: we know who’s going to live and who’s going to die. Gina Prince-Blythewood’s “The Old Guard”, however, based on a graphic novel by Greg Rucka, does not so much solve that problem as cleverly get around it by creating a band of immortal warriors who do not not die but do die. They die again and again and then return to life. The opening image is of bullet casings falling to the floor and the face of Andy (Charlize Theron), the most immortal of the immortals, lying on the floor, beaten and bloody, definitely dead. It seems like a classic Start With The End, Flash Back To The Beginning set-up but it’s not. This moment is just a few scenes later and Andy and her three ever living besties rise from the dead and attack their would-be assassins, a scene elevated far beyond the usual swordplay and silver screen karate into the realm of majestic, conveying the resurrection as something akin to a sports movie moment, the fallen athletes digging deep to battle back. Alas, to Andy being everlasting has become nothing but a pain, made clear in Theron’s properly weary voiceover. But if this teases “The Old Guard” as an existential action epic, such notions, while not exactly window dressing, nevertheless drift further into the background as “The Old Guard” too often gives in to more standard issue cinematic mission of rescue and revenge.

Andy’s weariness stems not merely from never dying but from the world around her that is, in her own words, not getting better. In some ways, this idea seems to be one sculpted from the very fact all of us are being forced to watch this movie at home since the only real evidence mounted by the movie itself pertaining to the lamentable state of the world is a few cable news flashes of current events. If anything, Andy’s journey proves more personal, the ultimate reveal tied to the selfishness inherent in wanting to just be dead and buried. If there is any light, it glimmers in Nile (Kiki Layne), a U.S. Marine who discovers she’s immortal after dying in battle and then, suddenly, coming to. She reluctantly winds up part of the gang and the first time she and Andy fight is one of the few times Theron truly turns her lips upward into a grin, luxuriating in the thrill of a real foe. This scene, taking place on a drug plane on which they are hitching a ride, where, for a split-second, you really think Andy might crash the plane just because she can, “The Old Guard” almost suggests “Only Lovers Left Alive” as an action movie, immortality as cool ennui. Alas, that tantalizing bout of atmosphere gradually dissipates in the favor of conventionality.

The villain, pharmaceutical bro Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), kidnaps the warriors in order to study them for a possible life-extending drug. It’s not a bad hook and opens up fascinating questions about whether these characters would owe it to society to be studied or if opening that door would unleash some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. Those questions, though, fade away and the bro, like Gary Oldman in “The Professional” filtered through Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”, is more a standard-issue smarmy villain than philosophical provocateur. And as Nile is forced into the role of rescuer and then team member, the action ceases to illuminate emotion, regressing into customary set pieces to keep the story moving, not really even dazzling simply via their style. 

As Andy, Theron broods real good, matching her character’s distaste for what society has become, as if humanity’s inability to evolve beyond the same century-old grudges has left her blue. But while Andy is intended as something of an enigma, she also feels strictly modern, a la Matthias Schoenaerts as her main cohort Booker. We see a brief flashback to The Crusades but Andy never exactly looks or acts like someone who would have existed unto each era, carrying so much worldly knowledge and pain. In some ineffable way, she looks like she’s always been around indoor plumbing. Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), on the other hand, while initially appearing to merely be the token tagalongs as a gay couple are eventually elevated into a little more. Rather than predictably playing a literal ancient couple as a couple bickering hags, they evince a sense of knowing each other so well their love has been stripped of any superfluous horseshit and just…is. When they kiss, it doesn’t ring hollow, like that little moment at the conclusion of “Rise of Skywalker”, but counts, rendered as a touching answer to so much surrounding condescending machismo.

The most moving love story, however, belongs to Andy and Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) even though the latter is only in the movie for a few minutes and their love is more implied than declared. Glimpsed in a mid-movie flashback, the two women were original partners in action-packed good deeds only to be taken prisoner during the Salem Witch Trials. When their captors realize the women cannot be killed, they lock Quynh in an iron maiden and dump her in the sea, sentenced to a life of drowning, reviving and drowning all over again. Though the aesthetically tidy recollection of this memory is at odds with the wrenching nature of the event, it is nevertheless inherently so awful, it induces a shudder and leaves you wondering about an entire movie made in its image. It also proves to be set-up, not unlike “The Old Guard” itself, less a standalone experience than yet another episode of serialized cinematic TV. Immortality, I guess.

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