‘Too Old to Die Young’ REVIEW: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Amazon Series is an Enthralling, Maddening Concoction

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Too Old to Die Young is a crime thriller co-created by Nicolas Winding Refn and comic writer Ed Brubaker. Directed by Refn, it’s streaming in ten episodes on Amazon Prime.

In the aftermath of his partner’s death, Los Angeles police officer Martin Jones (Miles Teller) is promoted to the detective division and simultaneously indebted to local drug dealer Damian (Babs Olusanmokun). He finds himself as both law enforcement and contract killer. Martin’s underage girlfriend Janey (Nell Tiger Free) and her father Theo (William Baldwin) provide him a life outside of work, outside power dynamics and death, although we hesitate to call it ‘normalcy’.

Viggo (John Hawkes) is a retired F.B.I. agent in the employment of crisis counsellor Diana (Jena Malone), dispensing homicidal justice to the perpetrators of abuse, who have exploited loopholes in the legal system.

Jesus (Augusto Aguilera) is the heir to a drug cartel territory. He is grieving for his mother while he learns the family business from his relatives in Mexico, where he meets the beautiful and deadly Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo).

Too Old to Die Young is the story of how these three sets of lives intersect.

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This is not Refn’s first foray into television, that honour goes to his 2008 Ms Marple episode, Nemesis; but considering the length of Too Old to Die Young‘s episodes (most clock in between 75 and 90 minutes) and his cinematic visuals, the series has more in common with his stylish theatrical output and is definitely not your average binge watch.

In fact, this is anti-binge TV. You’re not meant to speed through it and you probably couldn’t, even if you tried. Slow paced almost to the point of disengagement, telling the story of a limitlessly ugly bunch of characters, one might even be forgiven for asking why we should watch Too Old to Die Young. But the answer is very simple – because it’s Nicolas Winding Refn and it’s effortlessly cool. Pulpier than a glass of orange juice, Refn spit shines everything with his trademark neon palette, while frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez adds typical sonic malevolence to the proceedings.

At the same time, Too Old to Die Young’s dedication to a slow unravel almost feels like trolling, with thirty minutes of plot stretched out to ninety and a stubborn refusal to take anything other than its own sweet time. It’s a real weird mix of ponderous desert vistas, glacially mundane conversations, the hilarious economic practicalities of delegating an assassination and a heart-pumping electric car chase set to a Barry Manilow song.

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Touted as a series about modern samurai, Too Old to Die Young is anything but. There is no code of honour anywhere to be found, except perhaps in the deviant morals of the drug cartel and the perceived justice that revenge brings. It is a series about men who enjoy killing. They’re not honourable warriors bound by obligation; they’re borderline psychopaths with a horrifying lack of conscience.

For many it will be maddeningly pretentious and even those who enjoy the series will be hard pressed to defend the absurdly slow-paced dialogue, so full of unnatural pauses and bland reaction that it threatens to become parody. Still, Too Old to Die Young makes no apologies and you either tolerate this indulgence or you don’t. Fans will be well aware that Refn has never been one to put character development before spectacle.

And there is plenty here that appeals for no better reason than it looks nice. Viggo and Diana conversing at dusk at a water park, lit in woozy blue/greys and delirious purple neon. Martin and Viggo stalking their quarry through the dust and shadow of a huge abandoned mall – you’ve never seen a more beautiful execution. Jesus and Yaritza silhouetted in a doorway, with just enough definition to mess with your head. You don’t know if it’s your eyes picking out detail or your brain filling in gaps.

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One of Too Old to Die Young’s greatest achievements is in the creation of its two principal villains. Jesus and Yaritza are utterly terrifying. Every major problem, or minor stumbling block, is dealt with in the same way: ferocious violence, degrading humiliation or a combination of the two. They use violence casually and without thought, and it’s symptomatic of what drives Jesus – revenge, narcissism and an unhealthy Oedipal complex (is there any other kind?). For her part, Yaritza is equally as disturbing – impeccably dressed and ruthlessly homicidal. On the one hand, dedicated to enforcing cartel rule, while on the other, a secret side hustle building a reputation as a folk hero.

Yaritza, like Martin, is another contradiction of a character. Or, if you’re inclined to further entangle your thoughts about Too Old to Die Young, another character who is completely human in this contradiction, despite their actions indicating a lack of humanity. A better way to put it might be that despite the outlandish lives they live, and the unnatural way in which they interact with others, there is still an element to these individuals that feels very real.

Jesus and Yaritza are the most fleshed out characters in the series. Augusto Aguilera is terrific as Jesus, a million miles away from his role as Nettles in The Predator, his repellent character and propensity for violence contrasting boldly against his model-looks and the dedication he puts in to maintaining his appearance. While Cristina Rodlo makes Yaritza equally deranged. Her glamorous presentation designed to distract from the ferocity lurking behind it.

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If there is a weaker character, it’s Martin. Miles Teller is great – don’t get us wrong. He plays Martin stoic and unflappable, and as an all-too believable killer. While his conflicted life brings a believability to him, ultimately Martin is too blank. He is reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s character, Julian, in Only God Forgives, who was so bereft of detail that Gosling famously described him as an avatar. Martin is not as crudely drawn, but we still never have any idea what really motivates him. Killing doesn’t bother him, but then it seems nothing does. Whether he’s murdering a woman in the same house as her kids, or attending a birthday party, his inscrutable expression remains. We’re not even really sure if he likes his own girlfriend.

There are also a couple of moments, mostly centred around Martin’s job in the homicide division, that are too surreal and too jarringly goofy to work. They broach a David Lynch-style oddity, but rather than lighten the mood, the sequences stick out for their contrast against the seriousness of the series.

We also encounter pitfalls with these long-form episodes, in that details revealed early on have a tendency to be forgotten about by the time they become relevant again, several hours of television later.

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But, even though the pacing is slow, the series knows when to ramp it up and there are times when Too Old to Die Young is exhilarating stuff. The plot and the characters get under your skin and even the frustrating episodes prey on your mind, demanding your thoughts turn to them. The news that Amazon has no plans for a second series is a bitter pill to swallow and an unwelcome epilogue to a story that feels like it has a lot more mileage left in it.

Despite some maddening idiosyncrasies, we come out the other side of Too Old to Die Young utterly enthralled. Like the conflicted protagonists, this is a mix of opposites, inaccessible at times, hugely exciting at others. It would be wrong to dismiss Too Old to Die Young as superficial or merely an aesthetic exercise, and yet also incorrect to fête it as highbrow. What we have here is simply a prime example of what Refn does best – mixing sleazy plots and grisly violence with stunning visuals and taciturn antiheroes. Although it is certain to divide opinion, Too Old to Die Young is a compelling examination of underworld horrors and absent humanity that ultimately rewards the large time commitment it asks of us.

SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆

‘Too Old to Die Young’ can currently be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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Film nerd. Comic book enthusiast. Punk rocker. He writes short fiction and movie reviews. Visit his blog HERE and follow him on TWITTER and INSTAGRAM.