THE OLD GUARD— 3 STARS
When it comes to the myth of immortality, the sweeping sentiments of Queen from the Highlander soundtrack say it best. Their song poses it as a pair of questions: the titular “who wants to live forever” and “who dares to live forever.” When Brian May’s lyrics continue, they wax “but touch my tears with your lips/touch my world with your fingertips.” Netflix’s new actioner The Old Guard, toplined by the age-defying Charlize Theron as the “who” pronoun compared to Queen, has its own heroic perpetuity and spits back “nothing that lives lives forever.” Her lips aren’t kissing a thing and nothing but murderous weapons are at her fingertips.
Charlize would be the one to tell Queen to take their romantic sweetness and shove it with harshness. That tone and timbre works just fine for the Academy Award winner who has been cementing this attitudinal career niche for the better part of a decade. Based on Greg Rucka’s 2017 Image Comics graphic novel featuring the art of Leandro Fernandez, The Old Guard combines its own brew of created legends intersecting modern settings and compulsions. Like its lead, The Old Guard has a toughness completely devoid of anything trite. The narrative screws might not be the tightest, but its aim is deadly enough to draw you in.
Theron, with a vitae including the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, and Hancock, is no stranger to plots with unknown mythology. She is one of four warriors with unexplained immortality who have fought for centuries behind the frontlines of pivotal events on carefully selected missions. Her “Andy” is really the storied Andromache of Scythia. She is joined by the Napoleonic era Frenchman Booker/Sebastian (Rust and Bone’s Mathias Shoenaerts) and the Crusades opponents-turned-soulmates Nicky/Nicolo (emerging Italian star Luca Marianelli of Martin Eden) and Joe/Yusuf (Aladdin’s Marwen Kenzari). Here in a 21st century that is harder to hide in, the group are clandestine assets for hire who cannot be killed and wield a mix of venerable melee blades and silenced firearms.
LESSON #1: WHAT TIME LEAVES BEHIND— Time has brought both skill and lamentation. Booker, speaking often as the poetic nougat center of the movie, describes Andy as a woman that “has forgotten more ways to kill than entire armies will ever learn.” Repeatedly torn and re-torn over centuries, their internal scars push against the pay-it-forward hope of multiplying their efforts. These stoic mercenaries thought the world would be a better place after centuries of struggles, even if the people they saved seemed to go on to future achievements in life.
LESSON #2: LOSING A SOLDIER— Booker bemoans further “just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting.” Immortal as they may be, they feel each death and the recovery takes time. They speak of previous immortals (prominently featuring Van Veronica Ngo recently seen in Da 5 Bloods) they have lost where the healing power mysteriously stopped and their time to die arrived. Those weary losses weigh on their vast memories and indomitability.
A betrayal on a staged hostage situation in South Sudan from their most recent fence, the ex-government spook Copley played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, has put the team in the crosshairs of a London-based Big Pharma executive named Merrick (Harry Mellick, all grown up from his Dudley Dursley Harry Potter days). The millennial mogul feels “morally obliged” (*insert a fakely principled comic book plot laugh here*) to take their genetic code as a means for weaponized science and a windfall of potential health market profits.
LESSON #3: GAINING A SOLDIER— For the first time in over a century, a new individual has gained the enduring power and calling. God-fearing American Marine Nile Freeman, played by the second-billed KiKi Layne of If Beale Street Can Talk) survives a slit throat in Afghanistan and gains beacon mental connections with Andy and the others. The veteran ancients seek her out to assuage her fears, teach her their ways, and protect her newness from the pursuing Copley and Merrick. Nile becomes the exposition driver of the veiled “why” questions we’re all thinking.
Increasingly prolific director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights) brings her talents to a new genre. Drawn to Strong Female Characters in every sense of the term, The Old Guard graphic novel was ideal material for the filmmaker’s stylish ardor. With Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne as her instruments, the film has a posture of determination over effeminate weakness that is wholly appreciated. Like many comic book films before it, The Old Guard relies heavily on their mentor/mentee dynamic. Layne continues to be a future star in the making and kicking ass alongside Theron will do her wonders. The confidence growth shows already.
One keen choice from Gina was the electronic pop selections merged into the action sequences adding backbeat to the nondescript danger music from the Oscar-nominated Lion team of Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran. That inertia bears Prince-Bythewood’s fingerprints. Shot by Bigelow and Greengrass vet Barry Ackroyd and GPB confidante Tami Reiker, the movie balances bloody guts with gritty gloss to make this a very showy thriller. Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire makes the actors and the massive stunt team led by Marvel-experienced stunt coordinator Brycen Counts, fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez, and department head Sarah Greensmith look
It is a rare and welcome treat of compromise to see a graphic novel’s original creator granted the opportunity to pen his or her own film treatment. How many times have followers and fans seen works butchered by script doctors? Following Joe Russo’s recent fellow Netflix entry Extraction and Joe Kelly’s superior I Kill Giants from 2018 (a must-see gem available on Hulu and Hoopla), Greg Rucka received the chance he didn’t get with 2009’s forgettable bomb Whiteout. His improved craft on the written page since then is evident and it is given a fair chance on a larger stage.
The trappings and limitations of a graphic novel distilled and compressed for a single movie are still very much present. The Old Guard has a sky-high concept (think 2008’s miscue of Jumper with its attempt at applying a centuries-old saga) with a low energy for expanding ideas. Harry Melling’s sniveling Merrick villain is implausibly bad, even by comic book standards for a movie bending reality like this one. A swerving double cross in the climax is also feeble compared to the powerful and principled characters. Copley’s Mr. Glass/Pepe Silvia-level conspiracy wall and the tiny flashback snippets sending viewers back to ancient times tease rich and unharvested levels of referenced depth that could be far more interesting than the present. It feels like a heap of gravitas and world-building was left on the paneled page.
As sudden and kinetic as The Old Guard may play for a quick entertainment ride on your couch, a Netflix miniseries might have done Rucka’s five-volume work more justice than merely one movie and a tease at a potential sequel. Root for a modest franchise with Netflix’s deep pockets securing commitments from the creative team and on-screen talent. We’ll follow Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne anywhere. If given the chance, The Old Guard could build admirably.