The IMDb page is a testament to the impact of Netflix, which is now streaming the superhero movie. There’s one bona fide star (Charlize Theron), but unlike big-name Marvel movies, Netflix went a more economical route with the other actors, who range from promising newcomers (KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”) to international names (Belgium’s Matthias Schoenaerts, Britain’s Chiwetel Ejiofor) to instantly-familiar-but-hard-to-place faces (Harry Melling, and let me help you: He was Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” films).
Layne is the only one in the bunch from America, and the United Nations casting makes good sense for “The Old Guard.” The title characters are a small team of immortals who roam the world, slaying bad guys and teaching new recruits such as Layne. These people have been around for centuries, long before the USA was a thing, so why would any of them be American?
The international cast is also a reminder both that Hollywood is not the only game in town (Bollywood is actually bigger) and that Netflix is quietly globalizing what we watch. While TV series that are not American seldom make it to our networks, Netflix offerings such as the German series “Dark” and “Unorthodox” and the Mexican movie “Roma” are reminders, along with the Oscar-winning “Parasite,” that audiences are not as resistant to subtitles as they were once thought to be. With other countries likely to reopen movie and TV production before the U.S. does, that’s sure to expand.
A spot on the Old Guard has opened for Layne’s character because, on rare occasions, the “immortals” die, something the movie sort of tries to explain, then gives up on. There’s a lot of that in “The Old Guard,” which is short on internal logic and long on kicking bad guys in the face. Basically, whenever it seems like something boring like plot or character is about to happen, director Gina Prince-Bythewood cuts to Theron pummeling someone and making a dry, Schwarzenegger-like wisecrack. “You said you had answers,” Layne implores her, to which Theron, squinting, replies, “I didn’t say you’d like them.”
“The Old Guard” is an efficient mayhem-delivery system, but given all the face-kicking Theron does, it’s hard not to compare it to “Atomic Blonde.” That was a much more stylish film than the somber “Old Guard,” which takes place in a lot of dismayingly brown settings where the characters moan about how much it sucks to outlive your loved ones.
Fortunately, “Old Guard” has a better villain than “Atomic Blonde” did: Big Pharma, as represented by the leering, spittle-prone Melling. Combining the most amoral aspects of science and business, Melling’s Merrick wants to use the Old Guard as lab rats so he can develop a cure for aging, or a better version of those liquid bandages or something. It’s not clear. Anyway, he for sure wants to tie them up and torture them while pretending to care about saving lives.
Melling’s asymmetrical baby face was made for movie villainy, and, if Hollywood ever gets back to making James Bond movies that need lip-smacking bad guys in a Javier Bardem/Christoph Walz vein, Melling represents a new guard, ready to step in.
The Old Guard
⋆⋆½ out of 4 stars
Where to watch: Netflix.
Rating: R for language and violence.