The Old Guard navigates familiar genre terrain but with enough punch to put the hetero white male actioner ethos on notice.
Every big-budget action flick should be as effortlessly entertaining as The Old Guard. Written by Greg Rucka, adapted from his own comic book co-created with Leandro Fernandez, and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Old Guard balances its high-concept sci-fi conceit with top-notch character work, philosophical and existential musings, and absolutely kick-ass action. The film follows a roster of near-immortal warriors who have spent centuries fighting injustice across the globe. Charlize Theron is Andromache of Scythia, aka Andy, team leader and oldest of the group. Matthias Shoenaerts is Booker, who’s only been alive since Napoleonic times. Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli are Joe and Nicky, a duo who met as enemies on the battlefield during the Crusades and now fight side by side as soulmates – as Joe jokes, the two killed each other more than a few times in combat before falling in love. After being betrayed by their former CIA contact, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the team must outrun an evil pharmaceutical CEO named Merrick (Harry Melling, in a delicious scumbag turn) who’s seeking to unlock the secrets of their regenerative powers. The team also becomes aware of Nile (Kiki Layne), a young Marine who has just become aware of her powers after getting her throat slit by an insurgent while on patrol in Afghanistan. Nile’s friends watch her bleed out, but when she wakes a few hours later without so much as a scratch, she is quickly whisked away by Andy before the military doctors can turn her over to Merrick, and the team begins her education.
It’s increasingly rare to find an action film that’s both excitingly visceral and thoughtful. It’s no secret that Netflix releases a lot of junk, and even confident genre efforts like Extraction and 6 Underground involve enduring plenty of flaccid loafing to get to the good stuff. No such sacrifices are demanded with The Old Guard. It’s a testament to how diversity behind the camera can manifest new angles from otherwise well-worn material. Old Guard certainly resembles other things – the emotional toll of living for centuries reminds of both the Highlander series and countless vampire movies; the group’s healing powers vaguely approximate X-Men; and, of course, the genre’s familiar narrative beats, like the seasoned veteran taking the rookie under wing, are present. But Prince-Bythewood, known best for intimate, human-driven dramas like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, and not necessarily an intuitive choice for a work of action spectacle, brings to the film a clear care for her characters. And Rucka’s screenplay is adept at sketching plenty of plot and backstory in big, broad strokes that nevertheless remain tethered to real, tangible human emotions, carefully delineating each character’s motivations and, in Andy’s case, centuries of loss and heartache.
Of course, all the good faith inclusiveness in the world wouldn’t matter if the film wasn’t good (anyone remember A Wrinkle in Time?). In an industry slow to evolve from its dominant hetero white male foundation and a genre traditionally most reflective of that, it’s great to see a film fronted by two women, one of them black, and which features a proud, devoted, and unambiguously gay couple. These decisions do the genre a service, demonstrating the ease with which diversity can be organically incorporated without sacrificing quality in favor of testosterone favoritism. Working with second unit director Jeff Habberstad and fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez (both, like Extraction director Sam Hargrave, seasoned stunt performers and MCU veterans), Prince-Bythewood isn’t interested in violence so much as the balletic possibilities of physical movement. The fight choreography here emphasizes cooperative play, as one team member will punch or kick or flip a baddie while another finishes them off. It’s intricate work, and if the editing is sometimes too quick, obscuring impacts, it’s a minor complaint. Everyone moves fluidly between hand to hand combat and gun play, or even when busting out swords and battle axes. While there are no obnoxious fake ‘oners’ here, there remains a welcome commitment to long takes, allowing each performer the space to show off some moves and highlight the choreography’s bang-up kineticism. The Guard’s virtual invulnerability gives plenty of options for wild stunts, as bullet wounds and blunt trauma quickly heal and allow them to use their bodies as both shields and weapons. As is increasingly preordained in this era of franchise filmmaking, The Old Guard ends with a post-credits scene setting up another entry. For the first time in a good while, that feels like a promise rather than a threat.
You can currently stream Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard on Netflix.