Review – There Can Be Only One… More. (“The Old Guard”)

A bunch of immortals running around with swords. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s the plot from Highlander, but this one gender-benders the main character (as do most remakes & reboots these days) and gives us more bang for our streaming bucks. And with Charlize Theron in the lead, how bad could it be?

Based on the graphic novel, imagine you can’t die and you have an insatiable desire to do good, what do you do? Why, you become a world-traveling mercenary that takes out bad guys and recruits other immortals. Well, that’s exactly what Andromeda “Andy” (Theron) does, and has been doing this since at least the Middle Ages. And boy, she still looks hot after 500 years! With the help of her team, Frenchman Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), and Italian gay lovers, Joe & Nicky (Marwan Kenzari & Luca Marinelli), they’ve been fighting the good fight for centuries, but Andy is frustrated. There are always more bad guys popping up in the world!

Enter ex-CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who assigns them a mission, but it turns out to be an ambush to prove his theory that these four are really immortal. With their cover blown, Andy decides to end their clandestine group and disperse, BUT! They get a big surprise! Somewhere in Afghanistan, a U.S. Marine on patrol named Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne) has just been killed in action… or so they thought. Miraculously she survives a fatal stabbing and is now psychically linked to the other four who now know about her! Great! Another immortal mouth to feed! Andy quickly kidnaps Nile who, once she finds out the truth about herself, doesn’t want to join up.

But Nile isn’t going to have much of a chance, because she and the others are being hunted by reprehensible Steve Merrick (Harry Melling), the super-evil CEO of Merrick Pharmaceuticals. Looks like Merrick (with Copley’s help) wants to capture the immortals so he can experiment on them and extract their secret DNA for the betterment of the world, whatever it takes. Even if means torture and dissection! Uh-oh!

Just after Nicky & Joe get captured, Andy learns the awful truth, really old immortals don’t stay immortal forever! The third act is a harrowing and John Wick-style killing spree that has Nile going after her new friends with their subsequent escape. Oh, and let’s not forget that tacked-on ending that hints at a sequel, of course. I’ll say this, for a first-time screenwriter, Greg Rucka is excellent, but then again, the man has had practice. Rucka is better known for his decades of work with DC Comics, notably the Superman, Batman, Spider-man, and Wonder Woman series. So, in writing this script (based on his graphic novel), it takes on all the elements of a comic book with the five immortals (i.e. DC superheroes) vs a supervillain. Even the dialogue is comic-book cheesy, but nonetheless fun.

After a fan-driven script, you have two other things that sell this movie, the director and the lead star. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees), although she hasn’t directed an actioner before, doesn’t skimp on the camera work, especially all the crucial fight scenes. They are filmed full-frame without any stupid jump-cuts or flash-edits, the sign of a weak director. Very nice! And then you have Charlize Theron who is fastly becoming a National Treasure. Beautiful, smart, can recite the dumbest lines like Shakespeare and act the hell out of any scene, her fight choreography here is about as impressive as it was in Atomic Blonde.

Layne is also very good, coming off of If Beale Street Could Talk and holding her own against Theron and Ejiofor. Sure it’s a little long (a bit over 2 hours) and the story does tend to border on the cheesy side from time to time with some silly banter (there’s that comic book dialogue creeping through), but all in all, it’s not a bad film to pass the time with a bowl of popcorn and a cold one.

**Showing exclusively on Netflix  

Highlander (1986)

“There can be only one!” With a crash of thunder and someone’s head being separated from their body, this quote is well known amongst movie buffs. 1986 saw the start of a franchise that spawned as astounding five sequels and an anime remake. And in case you’re asking, yes, a new one is on the way. Ugh!

Told mostly in flashbacks, we are introduced to Conner MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), also known as the Highlander, who is confronted by some guy in an NYC  parking garage. After a brief sword fight, MacLeod beheads him, says that famous quote and a powerful energy surge spews forth from the headless man, destroying several cars around him. The police show up and Connor hides his sword right before they arrest him. While Connor is being taken downtown for questioning, we jump back to the year 1536 and Connor’s backstory. Looks like Connor, part of a Scottish Highland clan, gets fatally stabbed in battle, but WTH? Connor doesn’t die! Shunned by his family and friends as some kind of evil freak of nature, Conner takes off and becomes a hermit.

Until one day he’s visited by the over-dressed and flamboyant Spaniard, Don Juan Sanchez-Villalobos Ramirez (Sean Connery) who not only tells the young man he’s actually an immortal, but trains the lad in swordplay. Why? Well, it seems that other immortals like to decapitate each other to receive their power, called “The Quickening”. Yikes! Eventually, Connor will have to face his other immortal foes in “The Gathering” to decide who will remain THE ONE! While training, Connor weds Heather (Beatie Headley), knowing full well that he’ll outlive her.

Back in the present, Connor (going under the alias of Russell Nash) is cleared by the police, but when he goes to retrieve his sword, he finds police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) snooping around. Brenda has found metal pieces of sword and is putting two and two together. Later, as Connor/Nash returns to his business as a wealthy antique dealer, Brenda tails him. Problem is, Connor’s arch-nemesis, that darn immortal Frankenstein-looking Kurgan (Clancy Brown) has found Conner and attacks him. The fight is interrupted by a police helicopter and everybody flees. The more Brenda prys into Nash’s life, the more Connor (Nash) tells her to get lost, which makes her pry even more.

And while Connor is visiting an old immortal friend, Brenda is discovering that Nash is NOT who he says he really is. Armed with damning evidence, Brenda confronts Nash, who finally tells her the unbelievable truth. But just as Brenda and Connor are making a connection, who shows up to ruin their evening? That’s right! Kurgan! Playing the “I’ll kidnap your would-be girlfriend and use her as bait” card, Kurgan lures Conner to the ultimate showdown and sword fight to see who will be THE ONE!

You have to hand it to screenwriters Gregory Widen (Backdraft), Peter Bellwood (Phobia), and Larry Ferguson (Alien 3). They crafted a pretty good story that, back in 1986, didn’t do so well with the critics, but the fan-boys fell in love with it, making it a bonafide hit. The whole “immortal living on Earth a thousand years” resonated with audiences as it was very comic bookish, coupled with the flashy, splashy swordplay action, you couldn’t go wrong. What was funny was, the whole Scottish backstory was far more interesting than the present-day stuff. This is probably why many of the sequels concentrated on MacLeod’s past.

Another nice aspect of this movie was Russell Mulcahy’s whiz-bang direction. Known mostly for his years of doing music videos, he knew how to film each scene to capture the viewer’s full attention. He also knew how to film a sword fight, something many directors have no idea how to do. And having gravel-voiced Christopher Lambert go up against monstrous Clancy Brown is just wicked cool. It’s funny to note that, after decades of playing the meanest, cruelest of villains, Clancy Brown has gone on to play kindly fathers, grand-fathers, and many animated voiceover works, like Mr. Krabs for the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon series. Just a word of warning: stick to this original movie, all the sequels sucked. I mean, badly, too!

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