A film review by Craig J. Koban July 19, 2020

THE OLD GUARD jjj

2020, R, 118 mins.

Charlize Theron as Andromache of Scythia / Andy  /  KiKi Layne as Nile Freeman  /  Matthias Schoenaerts as Booker  /  Marwan Kenzari as Yusuf Al-Kaysani / Joe  /  Luca Marinelli as Nicky  /  Chiwetel Ejiofor as Copley  /  Harry Melling as Merrick

Gina Prince-Bythewood  /  Written by Greg Rucka, based on his comic book series

ORIGINAL FILM

The latest Netflix original film THE OLD GUARD - adapted from the comic book series of the same name - most definitely doesn't score huge points for originality (the concept of super powered immortals fighting evil has been the stuff of movie sci-fi and graphic novels before), but where it does succeed is in how preposterously entertaining the whole package is in having subversive fun with its premise set within the context of a modern action thriller.  That, and it tells a fairly solid origin tale that rarely suffers from the same sort of expositional stiffness of many other genre entries, not to mention that the film is a hell of a lot more progressive minded about LGBT characters in a way that would put the MCU and DCEU to absolute shame.  Plus, THE OLD GUARD reinforces star Chalize Theron as a formidable action hero: she's in full-on medieval axe swinging/bad guy killing mode throughout, which is endlessly pleasurable. 

Perhaps most intriguing are the ideas that THE OLD GUARD's script (provided by the source material's co-creator here in Greg Rucka) contains about both the ups and downs of being unkillable...and unkillable for centuries.  Most fiction explores such a power as one that would be euphorically amazing to possess.  And yes, the immoral super heroes presented here take full advantage of their God-like abilities (shot...stabbed...broken neck...no problem...it can all be healed in minutes!), but Rucka's script is surprisingly thoughtful in its examination of how these extremely old, but still youthful looking characters have become emotionally rundown with the long passage of time.  This comes with restless loneliness and the unending pain of seeing mortal friends get old and die over hundreds of years.  THE OLD GUARD understands the damning curse of immortality, but it never becomes obtrusively somber, nor does it take itself too seriously.  Make no mistake about it, this is still a well oiled machine churning out violent comic book mayhem and all forms of orchestrated chaos while delivering decent world building. 

This immortal AVENGERS-esque team are led by Andy (Theron), who is the oldest of the group and has the most experience of learning how to use her unique gifts to get an edge in just about any battle over the course of several centuries.  She hooked up with a pair of fellow immortals and gay lovers in Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) way, way back in the Crusades, whereas their fellow death defying comrade in arms in Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) joined their ranks in the 19th Century).  In the present, this team keeps their powers a well guarded secret while trying to rid the world of all forms of criminal scum, but modern times and ills across the planet are starting to sully Andy into wanting to retire from her line of work.  As is the case with so many other stories involving off-the-grid kick ass action heroes lured back into battle, Andy is convinced to return to her savoir roots with the appearance of ex-CIA agent Copley (a good, but terribly underused Chiwetel Ejiofer in a marginalized role), who is smart enough to learn of Andy and her partners' powers through meticulous historical research.  He tasks the team with a seemingly simple mission: rescue a bunch of kidnapped girls in the Sudan. 

 

 

This all seems like a painfully routine assignment for Andy's team, but unfortunately for them all they're doubled crossed by Copley, who's in cahoots with a vile pharmaceutical CEO named Merrick (Harry Melling, oozing contemptuous sleaziness) who wants to capture these immortals, research their blood and DNA, and use that research to sell their healing abilities to the masses for massive profits.  Concurrent to all of this stress for Andy's team is their discovery of a new immortal in the form of Nile (KiKi Layne), a ruggedly tough marine that develops a highly unique ability to mend what should have been a vicious throat slash in combat.  As Andy seeks out this potential new recruit, she comes to the realization that she's slowing beginning to lose her own immortality, leaving her highly vulnerable to enemies large and small that want to end her kind and exploit them for financial gain. 

THE OLD GUARD was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the first African female filmmaker to helm a sizably budgeted comic book adaptation.  Her previous credits (LOVE & BASKETBALL and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES) don't really hint at her being a suitable fit for this type of material, but I applaud Netflix's outside of the box thinking and hiring of her.  Not only does she acclimate herself well to all of the standard, large scaled accoutrements of the super hero genre, but she also displays an uncommon sensitivity in developing these characters with layers of rich complexity.  She has to explore all of the particulars of introducing viewers to Andy's team and explaining who they are, where they came from, and what their end game is without succumbing to the pratfalls of origin tales.  THE OLD GUARD feels somewhat derivative in terms of its core premise, as previously mentioned, but it's Prince-Bythwood's uniquely textured handling of it and the characters contained within that injects newfound freshness into well worn material.  We've seen tales of immortals before in films, but rarely with this level of perceptive nuance. 

Andy and her team, despite the utter coolness and convenience of being immortal, all seem mentally broken down by the vastness of time that has passed them by.  They all just seem...tired, especially Andy, who just wants to permanently lay low and find some semblance of a quiet and peaceful life of normalcy outside of her crusading, world saving ways.  She also has a deep personal history of traumatizing emotional hardships, which is explored largely in flashbacks, one of which involves her intimate relationship with a female immortal women in Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) back in ancient times, but since both were deemed witches by the norms and attitudes of the era, the latter was taken away and dealt up an utterly horrifying fate: She was bound and sealed within a massive iron coffin and thrown into the ocean, leading to her drowning to death and  resurrecting herself...only to drown to death and resurrect herself...forever, and with no hope of escaping this aquatic tomb.  What an absolutely unspeakably cruel fate for this being, which highlights one of the themes of THE OLD GUARD of how living forever can be an eternal horror show for some.  Plus, this also informs Andy's personality and unwillingness to form meaningful ties with anyone. 

And, wow, THE OLD GUARD sure is more forward thinking about featuring openly homosexual heroes than anything you'd find in the Disney controlled MCU, for example.  We don't just get tiny, inconsequentially fleeting moments of pandering tokenism here featuring gay characters that come and are easily discarded in mere seconds (I'm thinking of you, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER!).  Instead, THE OLD GUARD portrays its gay lovers in Nicky and Joe with a sensitive frankness that's simply not a part of other comic book extravaganzas, and that's something to be respected and admired.  This is all dramatically driven home by the uniformly game and strong cast assembled here, and Theron, Layne, Kenzari, Marinelli, and Schoenaerts display such an easygoing and natural camaraderie together on screen that you'll never doubt for a second that they all aren't BFFs that have been together for ocean's of time.  I was especially taken in with the whole mentor/pupil relationship between Andy and Nile, which reaches a boiling point during one of the film's best sequences involving both of them going toe-to-toe on board a cargo plane that's jetting them to Andy's secret HQ.  Keep in mind: these immortals can still feel pain and be hurt, but they heal so hilariously fast that it makes fights like this all the more, well, frustratingly complicated. 

Of course, films like this can't all about thoughtful character dynamics, and THE OLD GUARD is indeed jam packed with as much blunt force brutality as one would rightfully expect from films of its ilk, and Prince-Bythewood seems enthusiastically game at delivery requisite levels of bone crunching hand to hand combat and brain splattering gun fights galore (there are times when she's a bit too spastic with her camera work and choppy editorial tricks - JOHN WICK this ain't - but her film is still viscerally potent and boasts many memorable sequences that wholeheartedly deliver).  And, God love her, Theron shows that she just may be the action hero to beat of the last ten years after appearing in the likes of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and the terribly underrated ATOMIC BLONDE (the fact that the Oscar winning actress can plausibly migrate between this and small scale dramatic and dark comedic fare like TULLY and YOUNG ADULT respectively is a testament to her greatness).  THE OLD GUARD builds towards a fairly rousing finale that, uh huh, hints towards more installments to come.  Usually, I loathe sequel baiting climaxes in would-be franchise starting introductory chapters (it makes the film that builds to that point feel like one big two hour trailer for better entries to come), but I was so taken in with most of what I saw in THE OLD GUARD that, as far as Netflix produced follow-up entries are concerned, I'm was left outstretching my open hand and saying, "Yeah, more please."

  H O M E