The Old Guard (2020)

 

I don't mention it much in my reviews, which is surprising given that my primary hobby is collecting records, but a movie can often live or die on its soundtrack as much as it can on script, directing and acting.  One executive at 20th Century Fox once mentioned how, when seeing Luke Skywalker watching the double sunset on Tatooine in Star Wars just looked awkward in the initial prints before the music was added, but the John Williams score behind it made all the difference in the finished movie.  Equally, many think "Duel of the Fates", during the three-way light saber battle between Qui-Gon Jin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace is one of the redeeming parts of the film. 

It was in fact the soundtracks to such films as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club that helped sell those movies to teenage audiences, just as much as the honest portrayal of the transition from adolescence to adulthood in these movies.   It doesn't always have to be grand symphonic stylings like Doctor Zhivago, but in some way the music has to work with the visuals to emotionally engage the audience in a way that one or the other on its own would not. 

Unfortunately, especially when it came to movies where popular music could be used, many film studios found that soundtracks, rather than used to enhance the film, could be used to score some extra cash by working with labels to push up-and-coming bands.  There are many problems with horror films in the 2000s, but one of the biggest was jamming second-rate emo and nu-metal bands onto the soundtrack in a vain attempt to connect with "the kids."  It was just as blatant pandering as a PG-13 rating or casting actors from WB programs.  

Often I ignore this in many of those films because there is so much wrong with them that hiring Hans Zimmer or Angelo Badalamenti would have done nothing but make one wonder how much they needed a paycheck or if they were just doing someone a favor.  If you're going to make a cynical remake or cash-in, might as well just grab what money you can. 

Unfortunately, sometimes a good movie comes out that is repeatedly undercut by its soundtrack.  I wouldn't call it the best movie, but 4D Man comes to mind, with a wailing jazz soundtrack that on its own is fine, but ruins what is an interesting story.  Similarly, The Old Guard presents a number of great characters, excellent worldbuilding and enough mystery loaded in to justify a sequel.  Instead of getting the real soundtrack it deserves, it instead gets a mixture of echoey, breathy indie folk, auto-tuned pop and mumble rap.  Several times we are looking at a build-up to a major action scene, or we are at a point where we are learning more or getting emotionally involved with the characters, and here comes another cookie-cutter pop song that fits with nothing occurring on the screen.

Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are a team of immortal mercenaries.  Against her better judgment Andy agrees to do a job for Copley (Chiwetol Ejiofor), an ex-CIA agent that has arranged a rescue mission in South Sudan.  Unfortunately, it turns out to be a set-up, arranged by Copley to prove his theories that the group is what they are.  This in turn leads to an attempt by an immoral pharmaceutical manufacturer (Harry Melling) who intends to capture the four of them and use their genetic code to develop new life-saving drugs.

The group itself has another problem: for the first time in 200 years a new immortal has appeared, in the form of a young marine named Nile (KiKi Layne), whom Andy saves from possible study and attempts to incorporate into her band. 

The story is based on a graphic novel of the same name and, though it follows several formulas, is still fun to watch.  The plot is straightforward, down to the reluctant young upstart, but where it departs is going into the details of how much being immortal has affected each member of the group.  Andy, as the oldest, spent much of her life alone, having the two most important people in her long life ripped from her, while Joe and Nicky have been lovers ever since they found each other fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades.  Booker, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, found had to watch his family grow old and die and ultimately reject him.  Since the immortality is forced upon them and not a choice (and, wisely, never explained, at least in this movie), it provides different angles of what Nile is bound to experience depending on the choices she makes. 

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood does a good job with the acting, forgoing the quick-cut editing too many films have these days and thus letting us see the scenes playing out instead of everything being a dizzying blur.  She uses location filming when she can (although she overdoes the yellow and orange filters when portraying Morocco and Afghanistan) and which often make sense as places where people could still attempt to hide in the modern world to avoid detection.  Greg Rucka, who wrote the graphic novels, was also the primary scriptwriter, and there is a lot to be said for being familiar with your own world. 

Everyone gives a generally good performance.  It's a Netflix film, so one could be forgiven for thinking that a major star like Charlize Theron might phone it in, but initially she was the one that got the ball rolling for the movie and she brings her A-game, performing many of the stunts herself, as does much of the cast.  I enjoyed the chemistry between the members of the group, and enjoyed this much more than a number of movies that I have seen in theaters.

That is why the soundtrack is such a shame.  What would have been an exceptional movie, despite some formulaic plotting and Harry Melling's silly overacting, is brought down to a merely good movie by the horrible soundtrack.  I don't know if this is how the movie was supposed to be, and if there is an alternate soundtrack out there that Prince-Bythewood might be able to slap on to drum up support for the sequel when it shows up in a year or two, but almost nothing fits anywhere.  I have my doubts that the person who arranged the songs had even watched the scenes from the movie.  My guess, unfortunately, is that this was a directorial decision, and a failed attempt at trying to connect the movie with younger audiences out of fear that the fact a good portion of the cast was older would turn them away. 

I know there is a sequel in the works, which is a relief because this one ends on a cliffhanger, and it is one that makes perfect (if, again, slightly predictable) sense.  If the sense of camaraderie carries over from The Old Guard to its follow-up, and the errors with the soundtrack are not repeated, then it should be interesting to see where this goes.  

The Old Guard (2020)

Time: 125 minutes

Starring: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

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