The worst thing to be said about The Old Guard is that it feels like the Marvel shows made for Netflix, in that it feels mostly like it’s saving up the good stuff set up for a sequel. The good news is that The Old Guard kicks so much ass that you’ll immediately crave for an entire franchise.
Just like with Thor: Ragnarok and Taika Waititi, The Old Guard — based on The Old Guard graphic novel series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández — proves that there is value in letting a filmmaker with a distinctive voice take on a big-budget genre film. Gina Prince-Bythewood easily fools you into thinking she’s had a long-lasting career making action thrillers about immortal superheroes, despite being best known for fantastic dramas like Love & Basketball.
Charlize Theron is here to save our summer by delivering yet another badass performance that keeps your heart racing through the film’s runtime. Theron plays Andy, also known as Andromache of Scythia, a warrior who has fought in battles longer than we’ve had books to record those battles. She’s been worshipped as a god and tried as a witch, but she’s kept on fighting wherever there are innocent people in danger. Right now, though, she fights in secret, with a small team of fellow immortal warriors all way younger than her.
Despite being the youngest of the group, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) shares a deep feeling of grief and despair with Andy, having walked this Earth for longer than any person should, and have seen way too many loved ones die. Then there’s Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicolo (Luca Marinelli) who met each other on opposite sides of the Crusades and killed each other many times before becoming brothers-in-arms as well as lovers.
Within a few minutes, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Greg Rucka (who also wrote the script for the adaptation) let us in on the palpable relationships these immortal beings have developed across the centuries. There’s a deep feeling of sacrifice, loneliness, collective grief, and loyalty that unites them all, so of course, we also meet a new member of the team. Meet Nile (KiKi Layne), a young Marine who discovers she can take way more bullets to the head and stab wounds to the throat than her fellow soldiers in Afghanistan. She’s here to serve as a counterpoint to the bitter Andy, as well as serve as an audience surrogate by experiencing her confusion, survivor’s guilt, and deep loneliness related to her newfound powers. Sadly, though Layne does an excellent job selling Nile’s pain as well as her fighting skills (in Layne’s first action-heavy role), her role is often relegated to simply asking endless questions as the herald of exposition.
From the get-go, The Old Guard mixes exhilarating action with the emotional cost of immortality. Characters spend nearly as much time pondering whether they should fight if things only get worse, and the existential crisis that comes when death is no longer a concern. It is also refreshing to see a comic book movie headlined by two women, as well as featuring an openly gay couple. Marwan Kenzari’s monologue about his centuries-long connection to Luca Marinelli’s Nicky and how the petty, homophobic security guard doesn’t even have the capacity to comprehend what they mean for each other is one of the most powerful moments in a big-budget action movie in a long time.
As for the action, Prince-Bythewood is adept at finding the right blocking for the fights, and the film is well-edited to present the choreography in a coherent way instead of resorting to the type of quick-cuts that’s become all too common in blockbusters. Likewise, the choreography features both “gun-fu” (as seen in movies like John Wick) and intense sword-fighting that mix way better than you’d expect.
As for the plot… that’s where the movie starts to lose steam. If you have a team of immortal warriors, you’re bound to have a villain that wants to harness their power, but you’d at least hope that the villain gets more development than simply being a cartoonish Silicon Valley stand-in. Sadly, Harry Melling‘s youngest CEO in pharma (as he repeatedly refers to himself) is incredibly one-dimensional, saying he wants to give a gift to humanity but constantly talking about the economic profit. His lackey ends up being Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well-intentioned CIA agent who somehow keeps acting surprised whenever his boss does something that’s clearly evil.
And if you’re a fan of the excellent comic, you might be disappointed to see the beautifully stylish artwork be replaced with a standard color palette in an attempt to make The Old Guard more similar to the Marvel side of super-heroics instead of the stylish action of, say, John Wick.
Nevertheless, The Old Guard comes at us at the perfect moment, saving us from a dark, dull, depressing summer with a thrilling tale of badass people saving the world. Now, since the ending serves as an obvious tease for a sequel, let us hope we can enjoy the tales of these immortal warriors for years to come.