“The Old Guard,” Netflix’s newest superhero film based on the comic of the same name, is an engaging and clever look at immortality through fun action set pieces and interesting characters.
The film doesn’t do anything particularly special or new with its genre, but it’s a smart movie, and certainly worth watching. The most compelling superhero worlds are the ones where heroism has serious downsides and consequences.
Batman will forever be isolated by his duty to Gotham. The X-Men face rampant discrimination. Spiderman’s powers put everyone he loves into jeopardy. Likewise, the titular heroes must face the brutal problems associated with their expanded lifespans.
The concept of immortality is played with beautifully in “The Old Guard.” The film doesn’t bombard audiences with information or deep mythos surrounding their powers, as the characters themselves don’t know all that much. Bits and pieces of the film’s lore are peppered throughout the film, with hopefully more to be fleshed out in the likely upcoming sequel.
There is a profound sorrow throughout the film, but it never overindulges in bleakness to the point of banality. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood handles the tone nicely, allowing a surprising sense of hope to what could have been a boring, depressing mess.
The air of mystery surrounding the group’s powers is welcome in a genre that often attempts to over-explain the more magical aspects of their story in order to ground them in some sense of realism, only to inadvertently reduce the realism due to unforeseen plot holes. By not creating a convoluted explanation for everything, but rather create lived-in, set rules, the film can abide by its own internal logic much better than its genre compatriots.
The effects for their healing are fairly standard, nothing that hasn’t been done before and done better by cinematic portrayals of Wolverine. Nevertheless, it never gets old, watching the slow reversal of wounds as our heroes recover.
The central team is fantastic, sharing an easy and believable chemistry for a groups supposedly working together for centuries. Likewise, each character in the eponymous “Old Guard” comes from a different era, which plays into their characters and relationships.
Charlize Theron has cemented herself as a fantastic action star in recent years, turning in excellent turns in the phenomenal “Mad Max: Fury Road” and underrated “Atomic Blonde.” Here, she shines as Andromache of Scythia, or Andy, a 6,000-year-old woman who has dedicated her incredibly long life to protecting humanity. The oldest of the group, Andy is a woman wearied by seeing the worst of humanity for millennia, and, despite lifetimes of effort, evil still exists and thrives.
Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) fought for Napoleon, and primarily views his immortality as a curse. Forced to watch his wife and children age, suffer, and die in the 1800s, he knows immortality means slowly losing everyone you’ve ever loved.
Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) met while fighting against each other in the crusades, ultimately falling in love. Their relationship leaves the two of them the least resentful with their immortality, as an extended lifespan means more time together. Further, it is a nice change to see two immortal beings in a stable, committed relationship lasting centuries.
The newcomer of the group, Nile (KiKi Layne) was a marine who discovered her immortality upon being killed in the line of duty and awakening with her wounds entirely healed. It is through her eyes, as well as Andy’s, that we are primarily seeing the film. Nile serves both as an effective audience surrogate and an interesting character in her own right, as her emotional journey of dealing with newfound immortality is compellingly treated with nuance. Layne was excellent in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “The Old Guard” cements her as a talent as someone to keep an eye.
The villains are likewise each individualized, with disparate motives and degrees of humanity. All three are after the secret behind the protagonists’ immortality, but with disparate methods and motives. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the primary antagonist, James Copley, who is likewise the most sympathetic. A former CIA agent who lost his wife to a long battle with ALS, he is desperate to understand how wounds can heal and death can be undone to make sense of his wife’s suffering.
Pharma Mogul Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) is driven by one motive – profit. He sees the potential in using the immortals’ DNA to market lifesaving drugs and make a fortune, not caring if he has to imprison and torture five people for decades to do so. Lastly, the desire for scientific discovery and helping people is worth the cost of human suffering for Dr. Kozak (Anamaria Marinca). Rather than make the villains a generically evil monolith, the trio’s respective complexities deeply enhances the story.
The action in the film is very enjoyable. Theron’s dance training allows for longer choreographed fight sequences, rather than an over-reliance on quick cuts to simulate action. Prince-Bythewood uses that to its full potential. In a film with immortal characters, it can be tough to generate high enough stakes to make anyone care about the outcome of fights aside from watching pretty movements.
Prince-Bythewood, however, leans on the immortality aspect of the story, emphasizing their ability to survive many deaths, which can be in and of itself a curse when faced with endless torture. The most horrifying sequence in the film shows one of the immortals’ former teammates stuck in an iron maiden at the bottom of the ocean for centuries, drowning over and over again in perpetuity.
I do hope that we get more films in this series. The characters are engaging and sympathetic, and there’s a lot more that can be done with them. I’m looking forward to seeing the continued adventures of Andy, Nile, Joe, Nicky, and Booker.