First published in 2017, the highly popular Image comic series (and later graphic novel) The Old Guard concerns a small group (meaning four) of immortal warriors who live in secret, only surfacing for missions that promise large sums of money—and usually they have to be able to morally justify the mission (which typically involves killing, although they aren’t strictly assassins). Although they have lived off the radar for hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years with no explanation given as to why they are immortal, in the 21st century, it’s pretty much impossible to disappear and stay hidden. So their existence, abilities and purpose are catching the attention of those who not only wish to hire them but also those who want to exploit them.
The series comes courtesy of writer Greg Rucka (who also adapted the screenplay) and artist Leandro Fernandez, and the story pits ancient weaponry and fighting styles against armies of potential captors armed to the teeth with the most lethal and high-tech weapons on the planet. But these warriors can’t die, even after getting caught in a hailstorm of bullets—their bodies heal remarkably fast, pushing the bullets right out through their wounds (which doesn’t mean they don’t feel the pain of every injury they suffer).
But in the hands of seasoned, skillful dramatic filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights), The Old Guard is something more than just a fantastical action movie; it’s a serious meditation on loneliness and how once you realize you’re going to live forever, you immediately start distancing yourself from family and friends, for fear that you’ll soon watch them grow old and die while you stay young and living. The fact that these four immortals eventually found each other is something of a blessing because at least they have each other. But as the ultimate outsiders in life, they have to shut themselves off from attachments to anyone else.
Charlize Theron plays leader Andromache of Scythia (or “Andy”), the oldest of the four, although she won’t say, or doesn’t know, exactly how old. The always fun Matthias Schoenaerts is her right-hand Booker; while Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli play Joe and Nicky, who paired up romantically centuries ago and represent the healthiest relationship in the film. The film begins to get interesting right away, with them on a mission for Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whom they suspect is working for the CIA and is looking to free a group of school children from terrorist captivity. Instead, they are walking into an ambush and are mowed down. What happens next is both spectacular and horrific, and who’s to say you can’t be both?
As this mission is being carried out, we also meet an American marine named Nile (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), who is carrying out her own mission looking for terrorists when she is surprised by an attacker and has her throat slit before she dies. And although it was clear to her fellow soldiers that she is dead, she wakes up in a military hospital without a scratch on her, thus beginning her ostracizing in the ranks. Before military doctors have a chance to snatch her up for secret testing, the immortals grab her to save her (they were drawn to her by dreams the minute she turned immortal—again, it’s not so much explained as it is accepted). Nile is not happy about being grabbed up, and there’s a fantastic fight scene between her and Andy in a plane several thousand feet in the air that isn’t slick or graceful. There is simply too much to bump into and not a lot of room to maneuver, but the sequence shows off both women’s fighting skillsets so perfectly that you just sit back and remain impressed. It’s a brutal, extended fight that is as much about the two figuring each other out as it is about gaining control, and it gives them and us a great deal of information without dialogue—the first of many great moments here.
When the fighting stops, the conversations and questions begin, especially when Nile is brought to the rest of the immortals, who are clearly thrilled to have new blood in their midst after hundreds of years with no one new (to their knowledge). The only one who isn’t thrilled is Nile, who wants to leave and contact her family; they’re being told by the military that she died. And it’s in these moments that we get a clearer sense of what a life without death is going to be like and how difficult it’s going to be to stay hidden in a world dominated by cameras and other forms of surveillance. It’s not a coincidence that the man whom Copley works for is a tech giant named Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to somehow capture these unique individuals and harvest their tissue to see if he can stop death for everyone forever—which seems like a really bad idea as far as natural resources go.
The moments with Merrick are among the weakest in the film, and Melling’s performance is so stereotypically “bad guy” as to render him non-threatening on every level. Far more interesting is Copley, whose interest in curing all disease is rooted in something more personal and tragic than his bank account; he has no interest in harming these immortals, but that doesn’t make him any less eager to unlock their secrets. Still, his allegiance to Merrick is wavering.
The action sequences are spectacularly staged and shot, capturing a variety of fighting styles and weaponry that brings something new to the genre. Theron continues to be the ruler of thoughtful, intelligent takes in action works like Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, and what little they gave her to do in the most recent Fast & Furious film (and presumably the upcoming one, to be released next year). And by giving us characters who are neither fully good or fully bad, the film feels like we’re just scratching the surface of the places we could go if The Old Guard becomes a franchise (the ending certainly sets up some interesting dilemmas for Part 2).
If future installments can grant us a better villain, as well as continue the reciprocal student/teacher relationship between Andy and Nile, I’m excited at the prospect of further adventures—hopefully still directed by Prince-Bythewood, whose ability to set her “dumb” action movie in a grown-up, emotionally based world is one of the most impressive elements of the movie. The Old Guard has a ferocious kick to it and some much-welcome depth that sets it apart from so many action films in the last few years.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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