Action Adventure Kaiju Science Fiction

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
Director: Adam Wingard
Writers: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobbie Brown, Rebecca Hall
Genre: Action, Adventure, Science-Fiction
Country: United States

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Despite being the 36th movie in the Godzilla franchise (and the 12th in the King Kong franchise, I suppose), Godzilla vs. Kong manages to be pretty clever with its kaiju. They are absolutely glorious. And for a movie very clearly made by committee, that’s something to celebrate.

Godzilla vs. Kong even summons the ingenuity to have a likeable character or two, quite an achievement given Legendary’s so-called Monsterverse has a bemusing habit of offing its best characters. 2014’s Godzilla killed off Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who I think would’ve done an outstanding job being the central human anchor for this universe, as the characters introduced in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters sure as hell don’t succeed. King of the Monsters added insult to injury, killing off Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the only one making the cast of disposable sacks remotely bearable. To note, Godzilla vs. Kong keeps most of these characters, probably due to contractual obligations (this was filming by the time King of the Monsters released). The movie seems embarrassed by this and opts to give the Kong side of the story much more TLC, which I’m happy to report does pay off (it’s still not amazing, but it’s relatively good).

But we’re not here for the people, who are more so little plot ants to carry us from one beat to the next. We’re here for the title monsters, giving Godzilla vs. Kong some grace in that it doesn’t need to try very hard story-wise, as that isn’t the gambit. “Kong whisperer” Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is working at a Skull Island containment facility, where Kong is isolated from the rest of the world in fear that Godzilla will detect him and come to assert dominance. Ilene’s adoptive (I think) daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), has formed a special bond with Kong. Meanwhile, Godzilla has become extremely pissy and attacks a Florida facility belonging to very obviously shady tech company Apex Cybernetics, prompting Titan (the universe’s name for kaiju) organization Monarch’s concern that Godzilla has become a threat versus a protector as previously thought. This then prompts Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown) to join forces with Titan conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Bryan Tyree Henry) and her friend Josh (Julian Dennison), and the trio investigate Apex, reasoning that Godzilla had to have a reason for specifically attacking them. This line of thought doesn’t cross any other character’s mind.

As for Apex themselves, founder Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) convinces Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) – a scientist discredited for his theory about a “Hollow Earth” in the planet’s centre being responsible for the Titans’ origins and evolution – to use Kong to investigate the Hollow Earth. Thus, Lind joins forces with Andrews and her (again, I think) daughter, along with Simmons’ daughter, Maia (Eiza González), and they go on a little odyssey with Kong.

One must note that Godzilla vs. Kong is really a Kong movie ft. Godzilla – probably for the best, as the Godzilla end of the story is pretty desolate. Henry tries, but he’s shackled by a script that really would love to skim over character details, such that he’s stuck vomiting rushed exposition. Dennison is absolutely wasted, and Brown is just there. (Spoilers) In the end, they discover that Apex is developing Mechagodzilla to finally overthrow Godzilla as the… apex. It’s a subtle film.

What really gets me about the Godzilla end of the story is how a better, more narratively cohesive storyline was staring the filmmakers right in the face. Mechagodzilla is controlled by Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri). Note that he is the son of Ishirō from the past two Godzilla movies, as this movie isn’t keen to dwell on that. Also note that his father died in King of the Monsters, sacrificing himself to revive Godzilla. Also note that Apex is using a King Ghidorah skull from King of the Monsters. I like to imagine a version of Godzilla vs. Kong‘s script exists where we follow Serizawa helping develop Mechagodzilla, finding a way to acquire the Ghidorah skull, tying into loose plot threads from King of the Monsters, giving Serizawa’s family’s arc some depth, and also giving Mechagodzilla more impact than it basically showing up out of nowhere. Instead, we get Brown and co. bumbling about and managing to flank a startling lack of security for a company that managed to dig a Blade Runner-esque tunnel from Florida to Hong Kong. Worst still, none of the trio are actually doing anything until the very end. The filmmakers seem at least somewhat aware that this is bad and keep most of these scenes brisk, so there’s that if nothing else.

Conversely, the Kong plot matters to the overall story, and its greatest strength is Kong himself – a hugely expressive character, and the movie rightfully plays to Kong’s humanoid strengths, planting him as the protagonist. Kong’s relationship to Jia slots into your typical animal-human bond tale, but it’s effective – thanks to Hottle’s performance and Kong’s excellent character animation – and gives this side of the story way more emotion than the Godzilla side can hope to conjure. Lind and Andrews are decently watchable, with Skarsgård avoiding playing the macho leading man, instead opting for an ’80s-style mildly reluctant hero. Hall doesn’t do a ton, but she makes Andrews pleasant in a “I guess I don’t want to see you die when monsters throw down” way.

The Kong plot also brings us to the Hollow Earth, a lovely bit of sci-fi excess that the movie didn’t need to do but I’m pleased it did. It’s hard not to admire Godzilla vs. Kong‘s lack of restraint towards its sci-fi/fantasy elements – and really, why not? It’s a movie about giant impossible creatures causing massive swaths of destruction for our entertainment, why not throw the kitchen sink (especially when it looks as beautiful as this)? The Hollow Earth’s a fun bit of world-building, opening the door to future movies without forcing teases.

Of course, the Hollow Earth isn’t Godzilla vs. Kong‘s big-ticket item (but it’s a nice bonus) – that honour belongs to Godzilla and Kong and their inevitable versus-ing. The monsters’ Hong Kong fight is outstanding, taking full advantage of their distinct characteristics to choreograph a visceral and genuinely rousing centrepiece brawl. It’s aggressive, too, showcasing each monster at arguably the most primal and violent they’ve ever been, all under tremendously satisfying neon lighting. It’s among the very best fights in kaiju cinema and a joy to watch on a theatre screen.

The other two battles – one at sea, one against Mechagodzilla – are decent-to-good, never quite reaching the heights of the main Hong Kong fight. The one at sea’s quite fun in that Kong uppercuts Godzilla, followed by Godzilla bitch slapping Kong back, and I will never not enjoy either of those things, but it gets lost a little bit within its chaotic cutting and an excess of water effects. The Mechagodzilla fight’s also fun insomuch that you have Godzilla and Kong teaming against one of Godzilla’s historic nemeses, though it’s at the disadvantage of shortly following Godzilla and Kong’s one-on-one centrepiece battle and doesn’t really compete, ditching the cinematic neon for an overcast sky and drab neutral colours. That, and I have a disdain for this Mechagodzilla’s design – it’s a spindly thing more reminiscent of a Transformer than Mechagodzilla as we know and love it (its lack of teeth and plates are salient). A real bummer given that Godzilla and Kong both look exquisite. Kong’s design has never intrigued in its 88 years of existence (the brief is a large gorilla, not exactly open to massive creative liberties), but the monster’s facial expressions and overall movements are lovely achievements. And while a CGI Godzilla will never be quite as personally fulfilling as some person running around in a rubber suit, this is easily Hollywood’s best incarnation of the creature (that said, I have a minor gripe with its oddly bear-like snout, which has existed since Godzilla ’14 and throws me a little every time).

All told, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers exactly what it ought to and a little bit more, certainly improving over King of the Monsters by only having half the human characters completely flop instead of nearly the whole lot, and we get some truly exciting kaiju fights that aren’t shrouded in nighttime rain. It doesn’t threaten the top-tier Godzilla movies – like 1954’s Godzilla, or 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla – though it is snugly in the better-half, for whatever that’s worth (King Kong movies are largely trash, save for the 1933 original and 2005 remake, so Godzilla vs. Kong ranks as one of that franchise’s best without much effort). As for the future of Legendary’s monster movies, I look forward to the inevitable Kong sequel that further explores the Hollow Earth, promising some nice pulp fantasy. As for the lizard’s next outing, God help us all if we’re latched with King of the Monsters‘ characters yet again.

Action Adventure Superheroes

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writers: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Walking out after 2017’s Wonder Woman, I thought about how they (“they” being whichever filmmakers) would top that movie – where they would go from here. A tall order, coming off one of the best comic book movies of the 2010s, a movie that enveloped itself within the mythos of superheroes and the idea of human gods among everybody else, and also one that clearly relished being the first de-facto Wonder Woman movie, treating the character with all the stateliness and iconography such an honour entails. Wonder Woman 1984’s decided to go from Wonder Woman by well and truly going from it. As in distancing itself from it – as in being a very different movie altogether. A choice, for better and worse.

Returning director Patty Jenkins and team are not subtle about this pivot, to be fair. Hans Zimmer’s brassy, “gee-whiz” score should immediately tell you this won’t be encroaching upon such escapades as Wonder Woman’s WWI trench warfare, and cinematographer Matthew Jensen reaches for every colour that can feasibly be reached – starkly different from the dour greys and blues permeating the 2017 film. It’s the bright pop song to Wonder Woman’s stirring ballad, and your feelings about that ought to indicate how much your mileage will vary.

As for the particulars, Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot) lives her life as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, “secretly” fighting crime as her obvious alter ego. I say “secretly” but that’s just a formality – WW84 gives no shits about secret identities or anything like that. Just as well, given one scene where Wonder Woman returns to her apartment from a mall fight via confidently strutting across her terrace in costume, my favourite part of the movie. Diana meets cripplingly awkward gemologist Barbara (Kristen Wiig) and they discover a supposed wishing stone in the museum’s collection, a stone of great interest to scuzzy businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Diana uses the wishing stone to resurrect old love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) – more on this later – and Barbara wishes that she possessed Diana’s strength and beauty. If Barbara had been on Diana’s neighbouring terrace at the right time she would’ve witnessed what that strength means, but I digress. Max Lord, in a move I enjoy, wishes to possess the stone’s power. Bad things ensue. To defeat Max is to negate wishes, and both Diana and Barbara, who are enjoying love and increasing power, respectively, struggle to part with their wishes. That’s the meat of it, really.

The story’s neither deep nor very insightful, but Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham (all of whom did not participate in writing the 2017 film, and the absence of writer Allan Heinberg shows) try to weave a general point of “truth is good” and that one’s wishes probably shouldn’t take precedence over reality, and it’s… fine. This isn’t a movie where you’re meant to dwell on threads. In fact, it’s best if you don’t, as WW84 falls apart surprisingly quickly if you start thinking about what’s happening. Prime example – Steve Trevor’s resurrected by possessing a random guy (Kristoffer Polaha, credited as “Handsome Man”), who Diana promptly sleeps with and takes on dangerous adventures, paying no mind to the fact some guy’s life has been effectively roofied for however long Steve can commandeer his body. Well okay, you might think, trying to rationalize that you’re witnessing, that’s just the nature of WW84‘s wishing stone. But then others make various wishes, like the U.S. president wishing for more nuclear missiles, and most spawn out of nothing. WW84 would rather you not marinate on such things, but it’s kind of difficult when the movie basically ends with Diana eye-fucking Handsome Man after Steve’s gone. Anyway.

The third act tries very hard to ratchet the stakes up to Society level, but the rest of WW84‘s more content to keep the story contained to Diana, Barbara, Max, and their own strife and desires. Almost refreshingly, honestly. Where the 2017 movie amounted to Wonder Woman versus the God of War and the German army, WW84 amounts to Wonder Woman versus an 80s capitalist parody and Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat. The movie embraces comic book absurdities like Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and using her lasso on lightning bolts to maneuver the skies, all of which would feel severely out of place in Wonder Woman ’17. There’s a scene where Wonder Woman learns how to fly (just ignore that she never uses this ability in this movie’s technical sequels, Batman v Superman and Justice League), shot like a scene from the 70s Wonder Woman show – bloom cranked up to hell and quite lovely. It’s an easy-going movie, more content to hang out with its characters than throw them into action setpieces, not something you typically get out of a $200 million blockbuster. The action we do get rivets reasonably well, even if none of it’s that memorable and relies too much on slow-mo that gives nothing and takes much in return. The Wonder Woman vs. Cheetah fight’s the worst of the handful, too brief to be meaningful and also the murkiest setpiece (likely to obscure Cheetah’s CGI, which I think is about as good as it could be despite the flak it’s getting – not a ringing endorsement by any means, as mounting evidence suggests CGI human-cats are a terrible idea, but that’s where we’re at).

Max and Barbara make fine villains, though neither are really “evil” per se, more so misguided souls who make some especially shitty decisions. Pascal plays into the campy businessman archetype extremely well, feeding Max necessary flamboyance and presence. I went into this wanting Kristen Wiig being Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat and that’s exactly what we get – she chews stupid lines such as “I want to be an apex predator” like somebody quite aware of how stupid those lines are.

Gadot and Pine are more interesting to unpack, mainly in that the excellent chemistry they had in Wonder Woman ’17 has dropped off the planet. They play swapped roles here – Steve as the naive person in a new world, Diana as the guide – and since Steve’s not our protagonist and this doesn’t encompass any character development for Diana at all (aside from an apparently warped sense of morality since, again, she’s with a random guy), it’s just fluff. Gadot, per usual, does a swell job striking poses and modeling costume designer Lindy Hemming’s work (there’s a flowy white dress that – if I may have a gay moment – is divine and gave me great satisfaction), though I guess this comes at the expense of acting on every other level as Gadot looks bored much of the time and speaks accordingly, including a line reading during the movie’s centerpiece desert action scene that’s hilariously Tommy Wiseau levels of bad. Pine’s more enthusiastic, thankfully, even if that doesn’t fix the problem that these two characters are padding familiar territory but with less charm and less purpose.

The movie’s insane 152 minute runtime doesn’t help anything. WW84‘s story is perfectly sufficient for 100 minutes or so and only 100 minutes or so – the movie’s a lark, there’s simply not enough happening to warrant going any further. There’s an opening scene in Diana’s homeland Themyscira, where a child Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes in an Olympic-esque competition, and it’s just way too goddamn long. It couldn’t even convince Connie Nielsen (playing Queen Hippolyta) and Robin Wright (playing Antiope, struggling very much to nail down an acceptable accent after all these years) to give a shit, as they flatly deliver platitudes about the virtues of truth. I’m fairly certain that the 2017 movie established Diana didn’t begin training until she was a teenager, so this sequence is both long and at odds with its own franchise. The 80s setting serves as set dressing: a shot of an arcade here, a shot of a perm there, but it’s largely arbitrary, seemingly existing to justify the film’s campier vibes and give Steve something to act dazzled by (I’m sorry to those who saw the title Wonder Woman 1984, drew obvious parallels to it and a select novel, only to see that this is not about Wonder Woman facing off against an authoritarian surveillance state. That would be an exciting movie, though).

It really comes down to Wonder Woman 1984 lacking the good sense to trim fat and tighten its relatively basic story and themes – it’s something much more suited for a sleek adventure than slogging for 2.5 hours, akin to DC’s fellow bubblegum-essence superhero movie, Shazam!. 2018’s Aquaman -operating within a similar mode of “let’s embrace all the delightful superhero bullshit in comics” – ran 143 minutes, but that movie knew to just relentlessly plow your brain with delightful superhero bullshit and you know what? That’s the way to do it. I buy into DC’s swerve from grim, philosophical fare (though I didn’t hate that) to more Silver Age, inherently ridiculous adventures, so that’s something at least and, in fairness, WW84 doesn’t veer from the new status quo. I was left feeling entertained despite all the obvious trappings, and I’m interested in the inevitable Wonder Woman 3 (mainly because it seems to promise that we’re finally moving on from Diana’s dependence on Steve). But after witnessing the power and grace Jenkins, her team, and Gadot crafted with the character in Wonder Woman ’17, it’s disappointing watching WW84 fail to match any of it, even if that isn’t its gambit anyway.

Action Adventure Remakes

Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong
Genre: Action, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

If there’s any silver lining to Mulan – and there are not many – it’s the decency to experiment with the source material, 1998’s animated Mulan (better in almost every conceivable metric, unsurprisingly). This experimentation ends up flat and arbitrary, but at least it does something, even if that something isn’t good. But when we’re this deep in the throes of Disney’s live-action remake cycle, at this point a rather striking display of extracting every ounce of charm for cash, almost elegantly so in its factory-esque efficiency, we take what we can get.

Because let’s not kid ourselves, friends: 2020’s Mulan is not great. Dare I say, it’s bad. Fine on a technical level, sure, but remarkably inept on an emotional and soulful level, taking the power of the “Ballad of Mulan” legend – a simple story that lends itself easily to resonance – and addressing it with all the grace filmmakers absolutely rushing through said story can bring.

Which is a funny thing, given 1998’s Mulan pretty definitively laid the blueprint for soul here (within the Disney paradigm, anyway). Yet, Mulan is interested in eschewing the lightheartedness of yore in favour of something a little more serious, and you see attempts of this everywhere: aside from choice sequences, the film’s palette is bleak, relying on neutral colours and grey hues; sprinkles of light comedy are few and far between; the creature sidekicks are gone, save for a gaudy phoenix representation of Mushu (once portrayed by Eddie Murphy, now infrequent window dressing); and everything, generally, feels dourer. So imagine the dissonance when Mulan hurls these efforts out the door by making Mulan (Yifei Liu) herself a fucking superhero. The first time we see her, as a child (portrayed by Crystal Rao), she’s parkouring down rooftops and as an adult she’s doing all sorts of gymnastics, mincing through enemy armies with complete ease.

Shifting Mulan into a Mary Sue role does zero good, robbing her of any meaningful progression or character. Where Mulan ’98 is a good fighter, this isn’t innate, and her success stems from perseverance. Mulan ’20, uh, does not share this. Where Mulan ’98 learns lessons about fighting for and staying true to what you believe is right, Mulan ’20 doesn’t learn any lessons at all: her shame about avoiding “truth” is entirely predicated on lying about being a male soldier, which fundamentally misunderstands the internal conflict Mulan ’98 perfected. A lot of the dull characterization can also be attributed to Liu’s terrible performance, poker-facing the entire movie and regurgitating lines about loyalty, family, etc. with a stunning lack of emotion (personal favourite moment: Mulan trying to motivate her colleagues before heading into a grisly battle, which Liu starts by flatly stating “listen to me”). You could argue this is due to a language barrier, and that’s reasonable on paper, but she’s won the Chinese Razzie Award equivalent in 2012, 2013, and 2016, so you do the math.

The majority of Mulan‘s supporting characters are so non-specific that it doesn’t bother giving them much time of day (the musical numbers are sorely missed, particularly their ability to quickly and nicely establish characters) – except for Xianniang (Li Gong), a bird witch who really adds nothing in the end. Mulan sets up Xianniang as a foil to Mulan, presenting a scenario of two powerful women putting their lives on the line for people who will never accept them (in Mulan’s case, the “good” army, and in Xianniang’s case, the “bad” army) – the “good” army threatens to execute Mulan upon discovering she’s female and yet she stays with them (plus they accept her literally two scenes later), whereas Xianniang betrays her army, clashing with the movie’s endless mantra of loyalty, and we’re just like “oh… okay.” Xianniang’s story never connects with the broader themes the movie aims for (you could cut her out of the movie and nothing would change), meaning we’re left with a needless character who takes screentime away from those who desperately need it, like Mulan’s various army colleagues and awkward kind-of-but-not love interest Honghui (Yoson An). And Xianniang’s the most prominent supporting role, so it’s needless to point out the character situation in Mulan is dire, to say nothing of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the film’s villain, who just flashes crazy eyes and dumps exposition.

The bare minimum Mulan could achieve was looking nice, and thankfully it does accomplish this (with caveats). Mandy Walker’s cinematography does an excellent job with the occasional bursts of colour on offer, with her best work in the opening scenes, which look warm and very inviting, as well as the fireworks scene towards the end, which is just lovely spectacle. The rest of the movie is surprisingly grey, as mentioned before, and I get they were going for the juxtaposition of the Imperial Army’s red costuming against the grey of bleak war, but those reds don’t pop as much as they could and those greys command the palette. And the movie’s kind of a slog as is, so being a slog and depressing isn’t a compelling combo. On the costuming, a lot of it is merely okay, some of it is strangely bad, like an early scene with Mulan riding a horse and it looks like she’s wearing an artisanal autumn coat from Etsy. Grant Major’s outstanding production design picks up much slack (especially the circular living hamlet Mulan and her family reside within, it’s so good) and none of these sets look artificial, instead taking on liveliness of their own.

None of this is helped by David Coulson’s pretty awful editing. We’re frequently yanked from one scene to another with little regard to rhythm, posing two net effects: a) scenes aren’t allowed to breathe since the movie’s so eager to plow through to the next, stripping them of any emotional resonance; b) the action scenes are not fun and we’re often lost in time and space. Though, to be fair, these action scenes aren’t great to begin with, as Mulan is eager to take a pastiche of Asian action movie tropes (think kung fu movies with a touch of Bollywood) and… that’s it. There’s no real grace to the choreography, almost as if the movie is content to be like, “Hey, we did this thing. We didn’t do it very well, but we did the thing, so that’s cool on its own! Right? Hello?” It speaks to Mulan‘s tendency to want different things – a stirring story about a daughter honouring her family, a fun stylized action-adventure, an update that celebrates Mulan ’98 and the original fable – and its inability to put in the effort to actually achieve any of these things.

It’s worse off given the movie wants to take after the Ballad of Mulan more so than Mulan ’98, but it clearly derives its power from Mulan ’98 – hitting more or less the exact same plot beats, relying on the viewer’s nostalgia and knowledge of the animated Mulan to inform certain scenes because this one sure as hell isn’t interested in doing it, like Mulan taking her father’s sword, which in Mulan ’98 is pensive and empowering, but here she just takes the sword and that’s that (if I were playing stupid and wasn’t familiar with Mulan ’98, I would struggle to figure out what really drives Mulan here). And when you have to rely on another movie to provide your movie’s soul, your movie has no good reason to exist. Add in the deeply unfortunate associations with Xinjiang – including a shoutout to the government bodies responsible for the internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps – and overall there’s precious little to redeem Mulan, and even fewer reasons to recommend it.

Action Adventure Superheroes

The Old Guard (2020)

The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
Writer: Greg Rucka
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Immortal humans have been a tried and true narrative device for centuries, dating as far back as the Wandering Jew in the 1200s. It has given us many icons, using immortality to tell a story of extraordinary beings and their equally remarkable lives, often highlighting fundamental truths about humanity and the values of life and death. When The Old Guard‘s very beginning gives away the immortality hook that’s “revealed” ten minutes later anyway, in one of the shittiest recent forms of in media res, it was evident that it would not join any notable echelons, nor would it be a very good movie on its own.

The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries, led by Andromache (Charlize Theron), colloquially known as “Andy”, as they traverse around and try to do good in the world. When they’re discovered by CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), pharmaceutical tycoon Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) tries to get a hold of them to determine the cause of their immortality and commercialize it. But also the group senses a new immortal – Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. marine in Afghanistan – and they take her under their wing, despite her resistance.

Alright, so we have a I-see-the-beats-from-miles-away story, but that’s not super important, right? The Old Guard‘s all about the cool immortals, after all. Too bad the characters are all dead flat for the first hour, with Charlize Theron doing a shockingly bad job at playing the “I’m tired and grumpy and wear sunglasses and call people ‘kid’ because I have BACKSTORY that I’m not going to tell you right away because I’m TIRED and GRUMPY of everyone’s shit” character, emoting in such a non-subtle manner that I’m not sure if she’s actively bored or just angry with the role (I later found out she produced the movie, so make of that what you will). Andy and her main sidekick, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), drink a bit, but it doesn’t affect them, as this is a movie that believes arbitrary actions equal personalities and signify deeper inner lives. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is immediately awful, borderline video-gamey (I heard variations of “go get some rest” around three times in 20-some minutes) and giving us nothing to sink into.

This bleeds into the overarching issue that The Old Guard believes immortality is a story unto itself, and that the concept is more interesting than it is, even though this is far from a mysterious take on it. It’s like if we got a Star Wars movie purely about the workings of the Force – nobody would care about such a thing, it’s not very intriguing, but that’s because Star Wars can, and does, use the Force as a platform to tell richer stories. The Old Guard doesn’t take advantage of this principle, being more content to focus just on immortality and the predictable long-term inner turmoil it causes. Then it has the audacity to give us the Evil Big Pharma Villain storyline – and the villain is fucking terrible, an irritating non-character running through the most basic motions – and the Hesitant Rookie storyline and call it a day.

Insult to injury, the ending clearly sets up a sequel with the one plot thread that would’ve been great here, focusing on Andy’s ancient sidekick Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), who was sentenced to an eternity underwater in an iron maiden, recurrently resuscitating and drowning for centuries. It’s a nightmare and the flashback sequence is easily the most affecting scene in The Old Guard, laden with terror from both Ngo and Theron. The flashback sequences, no matter how fleeting, bring great life to the movie, transporting us to times and places more vibrant and inherently exciting than the comparatively sterile modern settings we’re taken to otherwise. And we are taken to many places in The Old Guard, but they all feel like window dressing – big panning shots to give you a sense of scale for the movie, a sense of adventure, but the lack of emotion and purpose (it takes forever to realize that the only conflict happening here is Evil Big Pharma) makes it incredibly difficult to get enthralled by any of it.

Much of this comes down to the characterization, or lack thereof. Aside from Andy, Nile has great promise during her first scenes, but descends into boilerplate (again, Hesitant Rookie who obviously has a change of heart) and Layne isn’t very convincing. Ejiofor is wasted in a neutered, boring role where he just exists. Schoenaerts humanizes Booker quite well, presenting a man tormented and rash by the loss of uncountable loved ones over the centuries, while Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are lovers who bonded after being initial enemies in the Crusades. Credit is very due to The Old Guard for giving us a to-the-point, genuinely loving gay couple, summarized extremely well by Joe in a speech about love and its eternal possibilities, easily the best character moment in the film. The Old Guard doesn’t focus so much on these characters, meaning moments like that are few and far between.

Then you have the action, the solace I sought most, and The Old Guard can’t even do that very well. Not only is it sparse, but it’s dry, lacking energy and any sort of momentum to propel the scenes, save for the very final fight. The first fight, taking place in a desert compound, is particularly bad – choppy editing that disorients us in the compound’s space, cuts too quickly between the immortals for us to get a good impression of their capabilities. That problem doesn’t persist much, thankfully, but The Old Guard fails to let us bask in its action, and what’s good – like Andy solo-fighting military personnel by an old house – is over way too soon to have considerable impact. These are quick action sequences, giving us a few flips here, a few blade slices there, yet there’s no real verve to it, and it’s so brisk that there’s nothing to really stare at and admire, which is a shame when we’re blessed with R-rated action like John Wick that treats its fights like bloody little ballets. Hell, The Old Guard severely lags compared to Theron’s own action vehicles, lacking the grit and adrenaline of Mad Max: Fury Road and the intoxicating style of Atomic Blonde. It’s not the editing horror story known as Æon Flux, but your bar should not be “well, at least it wasn’t fucking Æon Flux.”

So where does this leave us? Most of the characters are boring and surprisingly unintelligent despite some having literal centuries-worth of knowledge, the action isn’t exciting, lacking any discernible style or flair (my notes include one shot that pans up at Merrick’s headquarters in the third act, and it’s such a hideous shot on many levels), and the story is as wholly pedestrian as they come. The soundtrack is horrific, plugging in pop music that doesn’t jive at all with action that begs for a hefty operatic score. I realize The Old Guard is based on the comic book of the same name (I’ve never read it, to be fair), but a movie’s shortcomings can’t be absolved by sole virtue of being an adaptation.

All that said, there are good ideas scattered about, often in the form of the immortals’ actions throughout history, and I’d much rather see that movie than one that can’t even do the kindness of being entertaining popcorn fare.