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Charlize Theron stars in the new Netflix action thriller The Old Guard.

AIMEE SPINKS/Netflix

  • The Old Guard
  • Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
  • Written by Greg Rucka
  • Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne and Chiwetel Ejiofor
  • Classification R; 118 minutes

rating

2.5 out of 4 stars


Thank the movie gods for Charlize Theron. For reasons best kept to herself, the performer has decided to split her career over the past decade into three distinct, never overlapping spheres: prestige dramas that actresses of her calibre have to produce every now and then to keep Oscar talk alive (Bombshell, Tully), comedies that tease and twist expectations of the genre (Long Shot, Young Adult), and high-octane action flicks that are as ridiculous as they are indispensable. Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, The Fate of the Furious – all bananas in the best kind of way, and all vastly improved by the presence and driving determination of Theron.

With Netflix’s new film The Old Guard, Theron adds to her kick-butt oeuvre. Starring as an immortal warrior who leads a group of fellow impossible-to-kill mercenaries through the dark corners of the modern-day military-industrial complex, Theron takes every opportunity to punch, kick, maim and murder, all while cars crash and buildings burn around her. Yet while The Old Guard clings to all the expected elements of a Theron-led action spectacular, it lacks the very un-quantifiable thing that made her previous action movies so special: energy. Specifically, Theron’s energy.

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Read more: Let Netflix’s The Old Guard re-introduce you to Gina Prince-Bythewood, Hollywood’s steadiest barrier-breaker

Kiki Layne, right, makes the strongest impression in a cast full of excellent, often underutilized performers.

AIMEE SPINKS/Netflix

In her pairings with directors George Miller (Fury Road) and David Leitch (Atomic Blonde), there was a distinct sense that Theron was emptying her entire physical and emotional essence into the on-screen action. She propelled herself through each film with a fiery passion, her steely presence conveying a hypnotizing air of do-or-die dedication that compelled matching commitment from her filmmakers. You felt that she could very well bleed to death up there and would have been thrilled to pass away doing what she felt was necessary.

The Old Guard isn’t nearly as essential. Whether it’s the meet-in-the-middle budget that needed to be supersized or Netflix’s algorithmic influence that suggests a mishmash of subscriber-friendly elements but never one clear directorial vision, the film suffers from an overwhelming aura of exhaustion. The set pieces arrive too slowly and are executed with too little urgency. The violence is at once gratuitous and bloodless. And the emotional beats – those tiny moments that make you care about who lives or dies in the myriad melees – are muted.

There are a few scenes where Theron is an inch away from completely rewriting the proceedings – she just needs a slight jolt in the right direction from her director, a nudge toward chaos. But filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood never quite delivers the inspirational spark her star needs to unleash such fury, and the resulting antics rest somewhere between spectacle and shoulder-shrug.

Prince-Bythewood and her star fare a bit better when no one is slicing or shooting, although even then, the collaborators are faced with a script that places more importance on mythology than character. Adapting his own graphic novel, screenwriter Greg Rucka is wholly invested in making sure audiences realize there is much more to The Old Guard universe than the evidence being offered on-screen, which makes for a frustrating exercise in teasing and toying. (Is there a post-credits scene setting up a hopeful sequel? Of course there is.)

The film never quite reaches the chaotic energy of Theron's best action films.

AIMEE SPINKS/Netflix

Perhaps to compensate for the franchise burdens of the script, Prince-Bythewood gets creative with her casting, filling out supporting roles with such excellent and typically underused performers as Matthias Schoenaerts (as Theron’s fellow immortal), Chiwetel Ejiofor (a CIA frenemy) and KiKi Layne, who makes a stronger impression than everyone as a new-to-the-crew warrior.

Toward the end of the movie, when Theron’s hero gets to finally unleash the power of this ancient sword that she’s been lugging around for two hours, there is an “agh!” moment of pure audience joy, the kind that can only be found in the best kind of action spectacular. It made me want to immediately re-watch Atomic Blonde – but not especially eager to view the remaining few minutes of The Old Guard.

The Old Guard is available to stream on Netflix starting July 10

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