They are a group of ancient badasses with the skill and agility of John Wicke and the wisdom of Wednesday (American Gods). Andy (Charlize Theron), Nile (Kiki Layne), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are immortals working as mercenaries on an ancient mission to ensure that humanity doesn’t wipe itself out. It’s not quite like assisting “Fate” as the characters did in Wanted. These mercenaries were connected to something much bigger and more intangible than the Loom of Destiny.
Part of the intrigue with Old Guard is in fact that the audience knows as much about the mercenaries as they know themselves. These immortals don’t know a lot about where they came from or why. They don’t seem to know a whole lot about their link to one another and how a new immortal is born. These pieces are just a part of the story puzzle that Gina Prince Bythewood tells in this Netflix film.
A Centuries-Old Squad on a Never-ending Mission
Theron plays Annie, the de facto head of the team of immortals. They seem to have come together out of a need to commune with people of a similar plight. Somehow, they are all connected. This connection begins when the human dies for the first time, and we see it as everyone in the group feels when Nile dies. Despite the time that had passed, they all remember the pain, fear, and desperation felt upon their own first “revival”. At times, this mystery begins to get tiresome, but we are never given time to get totally exhausted by it. By the time the mystery starts to get too tedious, the action starts again.
Nile dies on a mission in the Middle East while trying to hunt down a man in the women’s quarters. This scene itself is refreshingly different as the women in hijabs are not helpless and silent. They have agency as well. Nile’s revival was actually more painful to the team than the last immortal “birth” because Nile felt an unknown immortal who was perpetually drowning in a metal box underwater. Andy is reluctant to retrieve Nile, but she must. The team is vulnerable, with her out there. It doesn’t help that Nile is also reluctant to go with Andy. This leads to some fantastic hand to hand combat (after Andy shoots Nile, killing her for a second time) that is too sophisticated and realistic to be called girl-fighting. Immediately after one fight, Andy tells Nile that she had blood in her hair. Nile does not wipe or acknowledge it, but we know that is one act that begins to soften her.
Prince-Bythewood explained Andy and Nile’s relationship in the African American Film Critics Association Roundtable on Old Guard. She said that particular moment was written into the script, using her own experience as material to draw from. “I remember distinctly, that moment and knowing what I would feel in that [situation] and then bringing that to Nile’s character.”
After the fight, Nile follows Andy but is never subservient and never tries to make her make Nile feel like the lesser women. In fact, it is evident that Andy is the leader, but there is never a moment where she “pulls rank” or asserts herself as the boss in charge of the squad. Andy even takes a dress down later when the group is separated. The couple Joe and Nicky are captured, Andy must figure out a way to get them all out of harm’s way together. Andy does not use force on her own people, either. She leads by mutual respect and group decision-making. And, she forgives.
The Ease of Diversity in the Film
The way Andy leads, hers and Nile’s fights, and the relationship between Joe and Nicky are a few of the ways that Prince-Bythewood has made Old Guard a very fresh and diverse film. It all seems to come naturally with this story. Of course, that squad has a heartwarmingly romantic couple, because it seems to naturally offset all the doomed romances that Andy has had. When the women fight, they don’t pull hair and shriek. This is a mercenary and a soldier. They FIGHT and then as an extra dig, Andy points out the blood in Nile’s hair. There is never a moment where it does not seem like Andy is too weak to lead. This sort of diversity forces other changes, like their clothing, which is not unrealistic. No one is fighting in heels or with their cleavage threatening to breach the shirt at any moment.
Prince-Bythewood explained how important it was that Andy and Nile were “badass”. “The thing that I’ve said about this, which is what I truly believe, is the fact that courage should have no gender. Badass has no gender. It’s not just a male thing. It’s what we all have in us. It’s just that women have never, or very rarely, been encouraged to tap into that. We’re just told to ‘tamp it down’ and ‘tamp down your voice’ and ‘don’t be so loud’ and ‘stop running’. And, you know, ‘don’t sit like that, because you’re messing up your knees’!” According to Prince-Bythewood, women who took in the early screenings of Old Guard truly related to this new version of a woman action hero that she offers in the film. She also was surprised that find that older women especially enjoyed these women.
Because of the “badass” women, there was no alpha/beta male to fawn over either woman. Outside the squad, the smartest man in the film is a Black man Copley played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. In most other films, he is cocky and either must dominate the woman or proposition her. However, in this film, Copley is afraid of Nile and Andy because he knows their story in ways that the mercenaries don’t yet. So we never get any lewdness or untoward advances. I mean, why would a man want to date a woman that scares him to death? He doesn’t. He respects her and tries to keep the area between himself and an exit clear.
Old Guard offers up a fresh look at an action film where women are respected and the tropes that usually weigh them down are left behind. There is no damsel in distress, no mean girls, no queen bee, etc. Instead, audiences are left with an intriguing story full of action so refreshing that you will want to watch again to see just how it was done.
Old Guard streams on Netflix.
Rating 4.5 of 5
Take a look at the AAFCA Roundtable interview with Gina Prince Bythewood
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