This summer has really deprived movie lovers of blockbuster action, as the biggest productions have had to continually push back their release dates to the ongoing pandemic. Tenet seems to be stuck in release date purgatory with its theatrical debut pushed back two weeks every two weeks. At least this summer without blockbuster action gets a bit of a reprieve with the arrival of Netflix’s The Old Guard. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based upon the graphic novel written by Gary Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay), The Old Guard may seem like just another franchise starter, establishing its premise and cast of characters in a spectacle that concludes with a tease for a sequel. However, The Old Guard is one of the more thematically interesting action films to come along in a while, a film that doesn’t always flow smoothly but is daring enough to take its concept into places most would-be franchise starters would never even dare.
The premise of The Old Guard is that of an elite team of warriors led by Andy (Charlize Theron), consisting of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). There’s one thing that makes this team of warriors different than those they fight – they’re immortal. They travel the globe seeking out injustices to fight, sometimes aligning with morally questionable figures in their battle for the greater good. Their most recent mission had them in the employ of Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-CIA agent, but it results in a double cross, a failed attempt to capture the immortal team. Copely’s goal is to capture the immortals and deliver them to pharmaceutical CEO Merrick (Harry Melling) with the intent to study and dissect the immortals in search of medical breakthroughs.
Elsewhere, Nile (Kiki Layne) is a solider fighting for America in the Middle East when she’s attacked during a raid. Nile’s wounds would be fatal but she’s now one of the immortals, the first to emerge in 200 years. Andy is able to track Nile down due to a psychic connection that forms between the small group of the unkillable. After Andy retrieves Nile and takes her into the tight-knit group bound by centuries of partnership, they’re once again betrayed and hunted by Copely and Merrick’s forces. Unfortunately, Harry Melling, who was so great in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is saddled in a kind of generic big pharma villain, leaving this talented actor with the film’s weakest role.
Elsewhere, Nile (Kiki Layne) is a solider fighting for America in the Middle East when she’s attacked during a raid. Nile’s wounds would be fatal but she’s now one of the immortals, the first to emerge in 200 years. Andy is able to track Nile down due to a psychic connection that forms between the small group of the unkillable. After Andy retrieves Nile and takes her into the tight-knit group bound by centuries of partnership, they’re once again betrayed and hunted by Copely and Merrick’s forces.
Immortality presents a unique challenge for the filmmakers behind The Old Guard because it’s difficult to create much in the way of stakes if the characters are impervious to death. But therein lies the most fascinating aspect of The Old Guard – it doesn’t revel in its characters’ ability to elude death but rather focuses on the burden and pain of immortality. Over the course of centuries, only a few of their brethren have succumbed to death. They don’t fear death. Many actually welcome it. What they fear is the fate which befell Quynh (Veronica Ngo), who was Andy’s partner before she was encased in a steel sarcophagus and dumped miles deep into the ocean for over 500 years. This horrific fate for Quynh allows The Old Guard to establish its own set of stakes for its characters, a terror which is worse than death.
The film’s action, which mainly unfolds in shoot outs and sword fights, is deftly directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood in her first big budget blockbuster. As she’s proven time and time again, Charlize Theron can anchor an action movie with a demeanor that is tough without sacrificing her character’s humanity. But the action in The Old Guard comes with an ethical complication – we’re witnessing a team of immortals snuffing out the life of countless mortals. How is it possible to root for those with eternal life when they’re extinguishing the lives of mere men? The film does have an answer which I won’t divulge, but it is an extension of the film’s take on immortality as an ongoing burden.
While The Old Guard’s examination of mortality as a curse as opposed to a benefit remains the most interesting aspect of the film, it does present a bit of an issue as far as the pacing goes. Do not expect a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action-packed insanity. There’s plenty of action in The Old Guard, but the violence is often followed by a lull where the film delves into its more philosophical aspects about its characters’ immortality. Whereas I found the film’s examination of its immortal characters’ psyche much more fascinating than the action, I can see how this might be the opposite for some other viewers. However, no matter where you come down on this you much at least concede that The Old Guard is not a by-the-numbers start to a potential franchise.
When it comes to its big budget blockbuster fare, Netflix has had a spotty track record at best. While The Old Guard didn’t by any means blow me away, it does deviate from the generic initial entry just enough to stand out from the pack. There’s just enough going on to sate your immediate appetite for cinematic action and a tease for a sequel that’ll leave you hungry for more. The Old Guard isn’t a revolutionary piece of blockbuster filmmaking, but it does push LGBTQ representation in blockbusters forward in a way that stands in stark contrast to the lip service of recent Marvel and Star Wars movies. I can’t say that The Old Guard always achieves what it is aiming for, but I have to say that the film constantly works to subvert expectations. In an era where blockbuster filmmaking leans towards the safe, predictable, and easily marketable, The Old Guard at least attempts to do something different with its broad canvas. That may seem like faint praise, but these are the time we’re living in.
The Old Guard
An uneven but ambitious piece of blockbuster filmmaking, The Old Guard aims to boot up a new franchise based on a comic book but its strengths lie in subverting the blockbuster formula while exploring themes related to the mental toll on the super-powered.