The Old Guard is the the most perfectly Netflix-ey film you could hope for out of Netflix's attempt to kick-start a superhero franchise. It is, for starters, deeply unpleasant to look at, filmed through a muddy digital veil that pushes all of the colors hard towards grey, unless the entire purpose of the scene is that they are yellow. It continues the longstanding trend of taking a very impressive director (in this case, Gina Prince-Bythewood, of Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights) and extracting from them some of the worst work of their career, aided in this case by obliging Prince-Bythewood to dabble in an uncharacteristic genre (her only other work in action of any sort was the 2018 pilot episode for the instantly-forgotten superhero series Cloak & Dagger); it does much the same with a well-stocked cast including Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthias Schoenaerts, and KiKi Layne, of whom Theron is the only one even who even seems to be awake. It is amply stocked with incredibly boring action setpieces, with choreography that feels needlessly hemmed in by unimaginative, cheap-looking sets, and which has been further hampered by choppy editing that's obviously trying to overcompensate for something. It has the most appalling, misplaced song cues of any 2020 film I've seen, all random R&B with not the least connection to the onscreen action. And even the choice of source material feels limited and small in a characteristically Netflix-ish way: I have nothing to say against the comic book miniseries written by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay), as I haven't read it, but it's not well-known by any means, and it feels like the thing you adapt because all of the popular comics have already been taken.

The film has, at least, an snazzy hook: what if Wolverine, but there were five of him? The old guard of the title is a group of four mercenaries currently hired by ex-CIA operative Copley (Ejiofor) to complete a mission in South Sudan. Here, they are all killed in an ambush. While their killers relax, the mercenaries painfully revive themselves, extruding bullets back out of the holes in one of the handful of genuinely excellent moments in the film, and make quick work of their attackers. And so we get our first inkling of just how old the old guard is: they are, in effect, a group of immortals, or at least a group of people who live for an excessively long time and whose bodies can recover from pretty much any physical damage you throw at them. And Copley turns out to be the latest in a centuries-long chain of individuals who have puzzled out the fact that they exist, and want to exploit them in some capacity. So off they all go on the run, with the added wrinkle that they've been experiencing a dream of a new member of their tiny fraternity awakening to her power, which means that team leader Andromache or "Andy" (Theron) needs to track down the newbie, a U.S. Marine named Nile (Layne), before Copley's people get to her. This having been handled, they... I don't, they keep running around, with action scenes in-between.

It is not, that is to say, a particularly plot-oriented motion picture, though at no point does it give even the slightest impression that it means to be. What it is, is a world-building motion picture. The bulk of the screenplay is about exposition and sketching the outlines of backstory, without necessarily filling in the details - so we learn about how Andy's first fellow-immortal, Quynh (Veronica Ngo) was captured as a witch in the middle ages, and see just enough of that time period to give the impression that a 16th Century Old Guard would be way the hell more interesting than the one we got; or we hear about how Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) met as enemies during the Crusades and have since become lovers spanning the centuries; or we get some sketchy details that Andy apparently has a sixth sense that allows her to save people who will, in the future, do some important boon for humanity, although this might just be crummy writing, not deliberately seeding in details to be fleshed out in a later sequel or prequel. And good God, it couldn't be more obvious that The Old Guard has visions of a sequel filling its head, which is perhaps why this film seems to be so much more invested in describing things than doing anything with them.

When it's not busily laying foundations, the film's other main interest is in action setpieces, and this is both the best and most frustrating part about the movie. The best, because at least here there is, like, momentum. Dialogue is not The Old Guard's friend, nor is character development, and when the film stops to let its immortal characters ponder what it means to be them, to have spent so long trying to do good in the world and achieving so little of it, it stops. At least where there are guns being shot and cars being driven and punches being thrown, there is kinetic energy. This is true even though Prince-Bythewood (or her second unit, anyway) shows no real feeling for how to stage action sequences to be visually engaging. There's not any especially exciting fight choreography to be found in the movie - as I said, most of it takes place in cramped hallways, and it ends up being cramped itself as a result - but it's at least functional, such that we can see it. Unfortunately neither the camera placements nor the hectic editing trust the fighting, instead breaking it up into half-legible little chunks of movement that have had all of their impact robbed by never showing complete actions, or the impact of punches. It's a kind of impressionistic action filmmaking that might even be impressive, if it felt like the film was doing it on purpose.

But there isn't anything in The Old Guard that suggests it's operating at that level of creativity. The vile cinematography - which took two people to achieve, astonishingly, and one of them Oscar-nominee Barry Ackroyd no less - places this all securely in the gritty and raw flavor of coarse realism that a lot of these Netflix action movies seem to prefer, and there's nothing impressionistic about it. Impressively visceral fight sequences are just about the only thing that this style can be good for, and instead we get a film that's almost chaste about showing violence, a huge letdown after the mild body horror of the first revival scene.

When it comes to life, it does so entirely thanks to Theron, who is wry and self-deprecating in all the right ways to suggest some of her character's millennia-old world-weariness. She's not up to Mad Max: Fury Road levels of action hero badass, but she's at least better than in The Fate of the Furious. Her moments of coldness and sorrow are the the only points where the film makes something of the emotional potential that the scenario contains (it tries to do this throughout, you understand, it's just not good at it); the little trick that she plays on Nile on a plane is the only place where the film is effectively clever, and where we see thousands of years of experience planning and surviving result in anything like strategy. I would not at all say that Theron makes The Old Guard worth watching, or even tolerable; but she's good in it, at least, and when the inevitable sequel shows up, it will be in the hopes of getting a few more minutes of her taciturn sentimentality that I might even for a moment consider watching it.