Blast From the Past
The Old Guard is streaming on Netflix
So there I was, in the midst of a bout of pandemic depression. The old ways of coping were gone for the moment. I couldn’t schlep to my local movie theater. I couldn’t take my kid to a ball game. Up until recently, the zoo and local museums were closed. Sure, there are plenty of trails close by, but even my dog seems to be getting burned out by the constant walks. I’ll pick up his leash and say, “Ready to go for an adventure?” His eyes get wide as if to say, “Jesus, again?”
You know what that’s like. Nobody wants to socially distance. Nobody wants to wear a mask. Nobody wants to avoid bars and restaurants. But we do the right thing. We go on. Even if it feels like forever. That kind of thing is easier said than done, and sooner or later, we need something to take the pressure off.
And just like that, the Almighty heard my plea. Clouds parted. Glorious golden light streamed from the heavens. I was gifted with the very thing I needed: a rock-solid (and kind of dumb) film about immortal warriors dedicated to doing the right thing, going on, even if it feels like forever. I was pretty tickled by The Old Guard.
You might say Andy (Charlize Theron) has been around awhile. Turns out that’s a massive understatement. She was given what could be called a gift: the gift of immortality. Why? Nobody is quite sure. All she really knows is that she has a talent for not dying. Andy has seen empires rise and civilizations crumble. She’s traveled the length and breadth of the world, and in all that time, she’s only wanted to do a little bit of good.
Being a lone immortal would be a big old bummer, and lucky for Andy, she’s not alone. There’s Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). They have been in love for hundreds of years, and their Meet Cute was one for the ages. The baby of the group is Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s only been around since the year 1812. Their plan was to keep a low profile as they’re running missions.
Plans change, and during a rescue op in South Sudan, the team is set up and slaughtered. When I say “slaughtered,” I mean that after about ten seconds their wounds heal and they start spitting out bullets. They are not pleased to learn their betrayer is Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-CIA officer and the man who gave them the mission in the first place. He’s the right hand to Merrick (Harry Melling), a dastardly CEO of a pharmaceutical company. As you might imagine, the idea of monetizing immortality is quite attractive to him.
Things get even more complicated with the introduction of Nile (KiKi Layne), a Marine on duty in Afghanistan. She’s quite surprised to have her throat cut wide open by a terrorist, and even more surprised to wake up later without a scratch. Nile also has visions of Andy and her team, and she must discover for herself if a future as an immortal is worth fighting for.
At this point in my life, what I needed was a movie that’s well-directed, intelligent (or at least not insultingly stupid), and fun. The Old Guard checked all of those boxes nicely. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is best known for well-drawn dramas such as The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights. As it turns out, she’s nurtured a dream to direct a kickass action movie for years, and after all this time, she’s the first Black woman to direct a big-budget superhero movie. The entertainment industry is no more racist than anywhere else,* and it sucks that she hasn’t been able to spend the last two decades alternating between drama and thrills.
While the pacing lags in a few spots and some scenes could be trimmed to tighten up the film, Prince-Bythewood has made a strong piece of entertainment. Her action scenes are crisp, easy to follow, and creative without being show-offy. She takes a cue from Hong Kong filmmakers and shoots her action scenes widely. By showing the entire bodies of the performers, she allows us to appreciate the choreography and stunt work. And as much as I think the movie could have stood to be tightened a little, I liked that she takes the time to show us who these people are and why we should care about them. The budget of The Old Guard was an estimated $70 million. Not that I think she needs it, but I’d love to see what she could do with some big money.
The cast plays well together, for the most part. I liked Chiwetel Ejiofor as the conflicted Copley, and he’s someone who can play a morally gray character believably in his sleep. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Charlize Theron’s work, and a big reason for that is that she commits just as much to her action roles as she does to more “legitimate” acting. As Andy, she can convincingly beat ass, yet she makes sure to let us feel the weight of the centuries. The only person in the cast I had an issue with is Harry Melling’s Merrick. He’s playing yet another cartoonishly evil corporate CEO** who really should have devil horns. In all fairness, the role might be written that way and Melling is simply following the page.
Writer Greg Rucka based the screenplay on his graphic novel, and overall his script is decent. There are a few moments that strain (and bruise) suspension of disbelief, in which you will say to yourself, “Wait…what?” Unless you’re inclined to be nitpicky, it’s not much of a problem. The important part is that Rucka takes the time to emotionally ground the characters and let us feel what they feel. Smaller moments that define character are a particularly nice touch, such as an early scene where Andy is given baklava and challenged to guess where it hails from.
Speaking of emotional grounding, let’s take a moment to talk about the romance between Joe and Nicky. Last year, when Avengers: Endgame was released, much was made that there would be an LGBTQ character in the MCU. Would it be The Wasp? War Machine? Scarlet Witch? Nope! It would be some rando in a support group that Steve Rogers runs. Hardly a character. Contrast that with the scene in The Old Guard where Nicky and Joe have been captured by a squad of sadistic goons. Joe is worried about Nicky, and one of the thugs sneers, “Is he your boyfriend?” The response from Joe is unabashedly romantic, over the top, and real. This is what representation is supposed to be, not just an offhanded gesture.***
The Old Guard was just the thing I needed. With muscular direction, a relatively intelligent script, and an enthusiastic cast, this is a film that delivers the superhero thrills we expect this time of year. Pandemics be damned if streaming services can continue to deliver films with this level of quality.
*Which is to say, it’s appallingly racist. Thanks, America!
**While I think we can all agree that corporate CEOs are, by and large, evil, they’re usually not overtly evil. Only a few of them are cartoon characters like Martin Shkreli.
***Greg Rucka had a clause in his contract stating that this scene had to be included if the script were ever produced.