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Schultz reviews: 'The Old Guard' & 'Brainiac'

Schultz reviews: 'The Old Guard' & 'Brainiac'

Carl Schultz

“The Old Guard”   Distributed by Skydance Media, 125 Minutes, Rated R, Released July 10, 2020:

It’s easy, maybe even tempting, to overlook Charlize Theron’s skills as a dramatic actress. 

Sometimes it seems as if Theron limits her natural beauty for her commercial appearances as a brand ambassador for J’Adore Dior fragrances...and for the occasional movies like 2017’s “Atomic Blonde,” in which the actress seems to either to spoof her own knockout good looks or blatantly exploit them as a sort of gimmick, an in-joke among fans.  Whatever her intention, it seems to work:  ”Atomic Blonde” earned over $100 million in global box office receipts, and a sequel is in the works.

To compensate for her supermodel allure, Theron occasionally needs to don elaborate prosthetic makeup to earn legitimacy as a performer.  The actress won the Academy Award for her heavily disguised characterization as serial killer Aileen Wuormos in “Monster” in 2003.  And even in 2019’s “Bombshell,” in which latex appliances and makeup effects helped the actress achieve an astonishing likeness to newscaster Megyn Kelly (and earn another Academy Award nomination in the bargain), the transformation would’ve fallen flat without Theron’s spot-on characterization.

Charlize Theron does not indulge herself in prosthetics or elaborate makeup for the new action thriller “The Old Guard”...beyond simulations of various abrasions, wounds, and injuries (in the movie’s very first scene, her character sports a bullet wound in her forehead).  During some shots and closeups throughout the picture, the actress doesn’t seem to be wearing makeup at all.  Rather, at age 44 Theron allows her natural appearance to help her inhabit the role of an immortal warrior who over the course of a dozen centuries of unending battles, missions and crusades has grown weary, troubled, cynical...and suddenly, irrevocably older.

In “The Old Guard,” Theron stars as Andromeda the Scythian (“But you can call me Andy”), the leader of a team of four “immortals,” centuries-old warriors with regenerative healing abilities who over the years have acted anonymously as the guardians of mankind.  When their secret is discovered by a rogue ex-CIA agent, the warriors are hunted by mercenaries who seek to capture them as test subjects for a pharmaceutical firm wishing to exploit their regenerative powers for anti-aging medications.  Simultaneously, the immortals are attempting to recruit another human they’ve discovered with abilities similar to their own, and indoctrinate her into their ranks.

Adapted by Greg Rucka from his graphic novel of the same name and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “The Old Guard” like all comic book-based motion pictures is about 70% blarny.  But earnest performances, a refreshingly mordant sense of humor, a few topical references, and some genuinely compelling filmmaking elevate the picture above a number of recent graphic novel adaptations.  The movie’s only real weakness is its pervasive aura of portent.

Also the filmmaker behind 2000’s “Love & Basketball,” 2008’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” and “Beyond the Lights” in 2014, director Prince-Bythewood is wise enough to keep the narrative moving at a breathless pace for much of the picture...although screenwriter Rucka’s rules of thumb for the immortals seem to be a little kinetic, or at least vague on actual details.  Possibly Rucka’s deliberate blurriness is a means of avoiding criticism about the minutiae which seems to obsess many aficionados of the science fiction genre, especially the comic book-based variety.

Sort of a combination of 2000’s “X-Men” and Netflix’ “Extraction” from earlier this year, “The Old Guard” despite its fast pacing and action sequences as well-staged as any Bruce Lee classic is never short of plot or character development.  Where a 007 movie or any of their dozens of imitators will generally spend the first hour setting up the perimeter of their imaginary universe and the second hour milking the setup for all it’s got, “The Old Guard” keeps the narrative--and the surprises--coming from the first moments of the film until the last.

And that’s a good thing, because as a result the picture remains interesting and retains the viewer’s interest when even the most well-made action flicks--the “Fast & Furious” pictures, for example--often grow more than a little tedious by the third act.  Intelligent and sometimes even insightful, “The Old Guard” is the rare comic book movie that plays like literature:  If Tennyson or Mallory had written a screenplay for a comic book adventure movie, it might’ve looked like this.

As central to the effectiveness of “The Old Guard” as the writing or direction is the performance of Charlize Theron.  As Andromeda of Scythia--Andy--the actress more or less blends her characterization as the icy, humorless title character in the 2004 science fiction drama “Aeon Flux” with her role as Imperator Furiosa from 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  Theron doesn’t do any heavy lifting dramatically in her role as Andy, especially for an actress who reputedly cracked several teeth from clenching her jaw in intensity for her role in 2018’s “Tully.”  But her weary but indomitable persona as Andy keeps the picture humming right along.

In supporting roles, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who played the laconic suitor in 2015’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” and the laconic convict in 2019’s “The Mustang,” nearly matches Theron’s level of commitment in his role as the laconic Booker, Andy’s closest colleague among the immortals.  Kiki Layne is appropriately callow as Nile, the new immortal on the block, and the versatile Chiwetel Ejiofor is wholesomely duplicitous as Copley, the ex-CIA agent who recruits the team.  Harry Melling as Merrick, the Big Pharma CEO (the ID letters on his personal jet read G-MRCK--get it?) is as crazy as any James Bond movie villain, if not half as charismatic.

Also produced by Theron through her Denver and Delilah Productions and filmed on a modest budget of $70 million, “The Old Guard” was released on July 10 for streaming on Netflix.  With an anticipated viewership of 72 million households over the first four weeks of circulation, the movie is among the ten most successful original debuts in Netflix history.  “The Old Guard” is also earning admiring reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 81% from Rotten Tomatoes against an average score of 70% from Metacritic.

Filmed in Morocco, the United Kingdom, and at Shepperton Studios near London, “The Old Guard” is rated R for sequences of graphic violence and for language concerns.  The movie is presently streaming on Netflix.

“Brainiac”   Distributed by Brain Damage Films, 93 Minutes, Not Rated, Released October 29, 2004:

The other movie filmed in Johnstown, Pennsylvania--the one that’s not “Slap Shot”--2004’s ”Brainiac” is grade Z idiocy, more in the tradition of 1997’s “The Relic” than anything that played at your local Bijou during the 1950s, which is how it was originally advertised.

Overly familiar from the first frame forward to anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie from the 1940s, in “Brainiac” research scientist Dr. Peter Van Dorn seeks to test a new medication he’s developed which will in theory cure both substance abuse and an array of psychoses.  But when the doc decides to test the formula on himself, the customary monster movie results occur.

Despite low production values, “Brainiac” is almost redeemed by a few good performances, particularly by Lisa Nistri as Dr. Sunday Morgan, the only practical, and not practically brain-dead, member of the medical staff at the local hospital.  Joe Hansard also finds fresh depths to plumb as Detective Steven Danko, the slovenly, clueless police detective you've seen in a dozen other movies.  Both actors perform above the level of the pedestrian script by brothers Greg and Matthew Bayan, although you'll still be wondering why it takes their characters so long to figure out what you knew after ten minutes.

In the dual role of Dr. Peter Van Dorn and the title bugaboo, co-writer/executive producer/actor/show-off Greg Bayan must've tried to get actor Joe Mantegna to play the dual role of Dr. Peter Van Dorn and the title monster, and decided to play Joe Mantegna himself when he found he couldn’t afford the real thing.   Bayan’s okay in the dual role, but the filmmakers should've asked their investors for enough extra money to hire Joe Mantegna himself, instead of having their executive producer perform a pale impersonation.

Produced on a bare-bones budget reported to be in the neighborhood of $150,000, “Brainiac” is actually paced fairly well by first-time director Terry Michael King, and makes the most of Johnstown area locations which include the old Windber Hospital campus and the luncheon buffet at the Main Moon restaurant on Scalp Avenue.  There’s also a big, exciting finale aboard the Johnstown Inclined Plane, although the kiddies should be cautioned to not try this kind of thing during their next ride from downtown to old Westmont.  

The movie's major drawback--and it's a big one--is the quality of the special effects.  The film’s makeup department must've mixed up too much artificial blood for the picture and decided not to waste any, although there’s a nifty severed-head-in-a-toilet shot about forty minutes into the movie.  Still, the majority of the effects are frequently laughable.  Credited to the students of the Tom Savini School of Make-Up Effects at Pittsburgh’s Douglas Education Center, you might find yourself wondering if the whole film wasn't an entrance exam instead.

“Brainiac” is not rated by the MPAA, but contains scenes of horror movie violence, gore, and some adult themes.  Barely released after its Halloween 2004 premiere at Johnstown’s Westwood Plaza Theater, “Brainiac” is still available on DVD for around $8 from some private sellers on eBay and Amazon.

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