‘The Old Guard’ review: Fighting to the death, and beyond
By Sandra E. García
“The Old Guard” could just as well have been called “The New Blood,” since that’s what it tries to pump into the weary superhero genre, with a reasonable degree of success and quite a lot of, well, blood. With the familiar movie-studio franchises in lockdown, Netflix has the opportunity to introduce a new squad of specially empowered warriors, drawn from the pages of Greg Rucka’s graphic novel series, brought to life by director Gina Prince-Bythewood and set loose against an evil tech-bro Big Pharma CEO and his heavily armed minions.
The fighters — led by the fearless, furious Andy (Charlize Theron) — don’t have fancy costumes or alter egos, and they all share the same superpower, which is not dying. Or not staying dead. When those minions hit them with automatic-rifle barrages, Andy and her colleagues fall down and bleed, but then they jump up again, wounds quickly fading, to finish off their surprised attackers.
Andy is the boss because she’s been doing this the longest — since antiquity, when she went by Andromache. The others include Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), lovers who met cute on opposite sides of the Crusades, and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who joined up during the Napoleonic Wars. Much of “The Old Guard,” which gently clears a path for possible sequels, has to do with the initiation of the newest member of the team, a young U.S. Marine named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne).
There have been a few others over the centuries. One thing Nile learns, as she struggles to understand her immortality, is that it comes with some fine print. Not a stake-through-the-heart vampire escape clause but something more subtle and philosophical. Time comes for everyone, sooner or later, and Andy’s crew lives in the shadow of both perpetual loss — they are doomed to outlive anyone they might care about — and constant uncertainty. They are powerful but also vulnerable.
Which is a good look nowadays. Nobody needs arrogant, swaggering heroes, and the tone of hard-boiled melancholy that Theron in particular sets is welcome. Like a gunslinger in a certain kind of Western, Andy is having doubts about her vocation, wondering how much fight she has left in her and whether her efforts have been in vain. The world, she bitterly notes, hasn’t gotten much better, and it’s not always possible to tell the good guys and the bad guys apart.
She and the others see themselves as a kind of nongovernmental humanitarian intervention force, though what they mostly do is kill people. This contradiction bothers Nile and represents an ethical circle that “The Old Guard” doesn’t quite square. It’s nice to hear about the helpful things these immortals have done, but what we really want to see them do is throw punches, swing axes, break bones and blow stuff up.
Prince-Bythewood obliges, keeping the action fast and fierce and avoiding CGI-heavy, overdone set pieces. She is a filmmaker who never condescends to her material, but whatever the genre — romantic comedy (“Love & Basketball”), coming-of-age story (“The Secret Life of Bees”) or show-business melodrama (“Beyond the Lights”) — her movies are anchored in humane, shrewd curiosity about the people they depict.
In this case, the emotional axis is the uneasy mentor-protégé bond between Andy and Nile. Andy is wise but also weary, in danger of losing the sense of purpose that has sustained her for who knows how many years. Nile, for her part, has been drafted into a cause she didn’t choose and doesn’t understand, and she wavers between self-confidence and panic. Layne, a standout in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is a quiet, intense presence, with a knack for the kind of small gesture — an eye roll here, a shrug or a grimace there — that Prince-Bythewood has a knack for noticing.
The story — Rucka wrote the script — doesn’t feel wildly original, but it’s good enough to activate a lively interest in the characters. An ex-CIA guy, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), recruits the team for a mission that turns out to be a trap. That pharma boss, Merrick (Harry Melling), whose hooded sport coats are perfect signifiers of 21st-century rich-guy awfulness, wants to harvest immortal DNA for new medicines. The do-gooder veneer he puts on his megalomania fools nobody, except maybe Copley. You do hope that the anonymous gunmen Merrick employs have decent health insurance.
And also that future installments will build on the promise of this beginning, which suggests all kinds of possible developments. There’s a lot of backstory to cover and also various future conflicts within the old guard and between them and the rest of the world. I’m not usually someone to hope for sequels, but I guess if you live long enough …