Review: The Old Guard (125 mins, Netflix). Charlize Theron is about the only thing going for this daft action fantasy that rapidly wears out its welcome, writes Paul Whitington
She may have made her name in serious dramas like Monster and North Country, but in recent years, Charlize Theron has reinvented herself as an action specialist. The film in which she first displayed her high-kicking credentials was Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which she stole from under the nose of its supposed star, Tom Hardy, playing with great conviction a kind of unhinged desert warrior queen.
She was great fun as an avenging MI6 agent who brings chaos to Cold War Berlin in Atomic Blonde, and gave Dom Toretto and Co a run for their money as a villainous adversary in The Fate Of The Furious. She has physical grace, is a convincing pugilist and has perfected a deadpan scowl Arnie would be proud of.
In short, Theron is good at this stuff, and she's at it again in The Old Guard, a sci-fi action romp based on a graphic novel by DC Comics writer Greg Rucka. In Morocco, a terse and mysterious woman called Andy (Theron) meets up with old comrades Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari). They haven't seen each other for some time, but have clearly endured many tough campaigns together, and take all precautions when they go to meet an ex-CIA man called Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
He has information regarding the kidnapping of a group of schoolgirls in South Sudan and offers them a large fee for a rescue attempt. But when Andy and the team arrive at the remote desert compound where the girls are being held, they soon realise it's a trap. There are no girls and, instead, special forces troops appear on all sides to pump bullets into them.
End film, roll credits, 20 minutes in but never mind - though hang on, what's this! Seconds after being shot, Andy and friends rise from the ground with rapidly healing bullet wounds and slaughter all their adversaries. (This is no spoiler by the way - it's in all the trailers.)
They are, you see, immortal, veterans of the Crusades, Napoleonic campaigns, American Civil War and so forth, who rebound from even the most horrific wounds, avoid detection and tend to favour just causes. They're a kind of secret society, deeply loyal to one another, their consciousnesses apparently connected in dreams. But staying off the radar in the modern world of smart phones and surveillance cameras has become practically impossible, and now a rapacious pharma boss called Merrick (Harry Melling) has figured out who and what they are and wants to catch them and harvest their DNA. The swine.
Merrick succeeds in capturing Nicky and Joe, and Andy's attempts to free them will be complicated by the arrival of a new recruit. For the first time in centuries, another immortal has emerged: through a communal dream, Andy and Booker sense the presence of Nile (Kiki Layne), a young US Marine who is taking down a terrorist suspect in Afghanistan when he fatally stabs her in the neck.
She dies, but then miraculously recovers, to the horror of her comrades, who shun her. But the immortals know what's going on, and must now get Nile up to speed before heading to London to take down Merrick.
The Old Guard has classical pretensions: in a clumsy flashback we discover that Andy is really Andromache, an Amazonian warrior princess, who's been alive for thousands of years ("I can't remember," she says coyly whenever anyone has the bad manners to ask her age) and may also have been in love with a female comrade from whom she was violently separated during the 16th century witch hunts. She also immodestly intimates that she was once worshipped as a god.
Sporting neatly cropped, dyed-black hair and a lean, hungry look, Theron has the charisma and gravitas to front up this kind of nonsense, but a patchy script does her and co-stars no favours.
Two major problems stand out: one is how badly and clumsily the immortals' story is established. If we're told that Booker fought with Napoleon, and that Andy helped Abraham Lincoln win the Civil War, then give us a few bloody flashbacks!
The only ones we get are of Andy looking vaguely embarrassed as she careers through the Asian steppe on horseback, lopping enemy heads off with a colossal axe.
There are decent action scenes, slick and flashy, but everything is on the surface - character development is minimal and the plot is entirely predictable.
Problem number two is humour, or rather the lack of it. If you're going to perpetrate this kind of nonsense, it might be wise to throw in a few jokes. Instead, Andy and friends spend most of their time moaning about the heavy burden of immortality and staring moodily into the middle distance.
Eternity would indeed be intolerable in the company of these bores.
Rating: two stars
For more culture and entertainment news, reviews, interviews and features directly into your inbox sign up for our weekly newsletter HERE.