If you ever had the desire to watch Charlize Theron play a cranky, tired, axe-wielding immortal warrior then Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard may be of interest to you.
The story by Greg Rucka, adapted by his comic book of the same name, follows Andromache of Scythia a.k.a. Andy (Theron), and her pack of mercenaries: Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). They are a group of immortals who are seemingly meant to save the world, however, several challenges present themselves. When a recent mission goes awry, Andy and her team must fight an enemy that knows their secret and is hunting them down. Things are further complicated when a new immortal, Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), is “awakened”.
The film is a very solid first entry for what one can hope is a series of films – ideally a trilogy, as with most good things, going too long may not always be a positive thing. As it is the first entry for a seemingly new property for many viewers there is a lot to set up, whilst also being a compelling film in its own right. As Rucka was the writer of the comic he manages to balance the introductory elements of this story interwoven into an action-thriller that is engaging and fun. With the new team member element, we are given the necessary exposition as she is inducted into the team. More are dispersed throughout the film as it is the basis of the main plot. The nature of the how, why, and who in regards to the immortals, is smartly addressed without sacrificing any of the necessary action or emotional beats to keep audiences from wondering if reading the comic would have been better.
Theron shines as the boss. Both beaten by time and suffering from disillusionment, Theron carries the bulk of the emotional weight of the film. Each character is an avatar for some stage of grief. Nile, as the newest recruit, is in the initial stages with shock, denial, and gradually works her way to acceptance and hope. Booker is firmly in the pain and guilt stage, despite being centuries old at this point. Theron, Schoenaerts, and Layne do an excellent job conveying their various emotions as they navigate their trepidations of being immortal, the toll it takes on one’s mental health, and the suffering they bare witness too over the course of their lives. On the flip side, Joe and Nicky are happily content with their circumstances as they have each other. Lovers destined to be together forever.
The Old Guard is an excellent showcase of how vital it is to have balance, especially when the film in question is tasked with not only standing on its own but also setting up for later instalments. A key part of such balance is crafting characters and circumstances that make you care about the actions these characters take and what their fates may be. This is most evident in the scenes regarding Joe and Nicky. Kenzari delivers an impassioned speech about his love for Nicky, which is sandwiched between moments of action, humour, and suspense. When Andy proclaims that she will save Joe and Nicky no matter what, regardless of the outcome you wish her to succeed because you care about her and the enemies-turned-lovers.
The actors in the cast are given material that actually requires them to act, and not only play cardboard cutout of stoic heroes who occasionally throw jokes. This is something that has been all too familiar with these types of films. These characters have depth; each given a moment to express their past regrets, desires, hopes and current state of mind.
Aside from the character building and mythology, the film is also well-crafted in terms of filmmaking technique. The pacing does not move at a breakneck speed to introduce everyone and set up the foe as quickly as possible. Rather everything moves in a measured manner that gives the action and emotional beats the space it needs to hit the way it should. Nothing is rushed or dwelled upon. Moments of exposition and flashbacks appear at opportune times so we are never meant to feel overwhelmed by information or feel a sense of dragging in the plot. What Rucka and Prince-Bythewood manage to do is never assume the audience needs hand-holding.
As for the action, there is room for improvement, however, there is some stellar work here. One thing that can be improved upon in a sequel (just greenlight it now Netflix) is the use of the team’s old school weapons. Axe-wielding Theron is a sight to see, as well as Kenzari and Marinelli wielding their crusader weaponry. The scale and scope of the action sequences are not as big as one would hope, mostly taking place in small quarters with the camera whipping around to capture each team member fighting. There is a craftsmanship to the action sequences that allow us to see what is actually happening, and with action films these days, to see anything is a blessing. There are a tad too many quick cuts that undercut the action, but the work is done to make the scenes enjoyable nonetheless.
The film also forgoes a traditional music score for more contemporary songs. While this tactic often doesn’t always work, the songs are neither familiar nor part of the public consciousness in any manner that would take away from the scenes. They blend seamlessly into the background, often boasting the emotional resonance during key moments.
The Old Guard is a finely tuned action thriller with a stellar ensemble, great writing and directing. It can only go up from here and hopefully, Netflix takes the initiative to see what is possible with building this story out, hopefully with this same creative team. Upon the release of The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood will become the first Black woman to have directed a comic book movie, and perhaps an action film of this nature, and she does an excellent job of it.
The Old Guard will be available to stream on Netflix on July 10th
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.
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