The Old Guard (2020)
Forever is Harder Than It Looks
If you like Highlander (1986) and 6 Underground (2019), you’re certainly in for a treat here, as Netflix’s latest streaming blockbuster plays like a cross between the two. Adapted from the comic by writer Greg Rucka and artist Leandro Fernandez, with Rucka himself on screenplay duties (he gives an account of his experiences on Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin’s FatMan Beyond podcast), The Old Guard gives us not just one lone immortal warrior but a whole unit of ‘em.
Led by Charlize Theron’s Andy (actually Andromache of Scythia, ancient history fans), this shadowy black ops squad has been operating in the background for centuries, dedicating their unfathomable quasi-immortality to the service of some nebulous ‘good,’ which is generally achieved by soaking up a lot of automatic fire and then using ancient weapons to julienne some hapless goons who weren’t expecting their opposition to walk through several clips of 9mm FMJ like it was spring rain.
The mechanics of The Old Guard’s supernatural mythology is even murkier than Highlander’s and the plot — a biotech company wants to corral our heroes to milk them for medical advances — is surplus to requirements. What matters here is tone and mood, both exemplified by a simple shot early in the proceedings. Andy’s squad crouches in the belly of a helicopter as they’re ferried to the site of their latest mission, each tricked out in badass paramilitary gear. The camera tracks along the thigh of former Knight of the Crusades Nicky (Luca Marinelli), lingering on the hilt of a broadsword scabbarded there, contrasting it with the tactical shotgun in his hands. Boom! There’s your textural thesis right there.
If the thought of that gives you a little rill of excitement, then The Old Guard will work for you, and you’ll forgive its narrative inelegancies, of which there are plenty. The whole exercise feels like a series pilot, which means we get a lot of exposition and a lot of set up for future storylines, while the actual meat of the matter at hand is a bit lean. We get a point of view character in U.S. marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), who is revealed as the latest in the film’s line of long-lived legionnaires when she survives a surefire fatal incident while on deployment in Afghanistan. Rescued by Andy, she joins the gang, which also includes Napoleon-era soldier Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) and medieval Muslim warrior Joe (Marwan Kenzari), just in time for the rudimentary plot to kick in.
Layne is great in the role, but the character herself feels somewhat surplus to requirements. By the time she shows up, we’re already down with Andy and her men, so there’s no real need for a n00b for us to follow into the film’s hidden world. Indeed, audiences are much more fantasy savvy now than they were back in 2004, when Hellboy made a similar mistake by giving us a boring audience surrogate on the tacit assumption that the actual protagonists were too alien and ‘other’ for viewers to plug into. But nobody ever cosplays as the boring guy, folks — we’re pretty comfortable identifying with the freaks and outsiders, thank you very much.
This also means that we spend a fair whack of time bogged down in the ‘Refusing the Call’ part of Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. Andy has to explain or demonstrate various home truths to Nile as she comes to terms with her newfound undying status, which makes a certain amount of emotional sense even as it drags out the running time (125 minutes, which is about 25 too many) while the younger immortal comes to grips with her situation. However, strip out these sequences and the frequent flashbacks (a standard and generally enjoyable feature of this type of story), and you come to realize that the actual plot is pretty thin. Copley, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s former CIA agent, sells out the good guys to Harry Melling’s pharma billionaire, the good guys fight back – that’s it.
The upside to that is we get to spend time with the characters — and they actually feel like characters and not just archetypes. Andy’s immortal weariness is palpable — consider the scene where she admits to Nile that she no longer remembers what her mother and sisters looked like. Nicky and Joe are lovers, the former enemies (they met during the Crusades) having found in each other an emotional anchor to cling to as the years inevitably wash away everything else familiar to them. Even Ejiofor’s shadowy backstabber gets some depth and pathos once his motives are revealed.
But the real joy here is, as I said, tonal. It’s seeing Charlize Theron carve her way through an army of mooks with a battle-ax. It’s looking at Copley’s corkboard festooned with all the old newspaper clippings and bits of evidence about Andy’s existence and feeling that hidden, magical world begin to open up. It’s the contradictory notion that the sweep of history can be contained and apprehended in a single — albeit extended — human lifetime. If that sort of thing appeals to you — and let’s face it, this stuff is crack to fantasy fans — then The Old Guard should be hovering near the top of your To Watch list.
By god, but the thing needs a Kurgan, though. Melling is eminently hissable as the ruthless billionaire bad guy (the Harry Potter veteran, who played Dudley Dursley in the franchise, knows his wheelhouse), but he’s not exactly formidable in and of himself. The Old Guard makes certain promises in its denouement regarding future antagonists, but in the film as it exists, we pretty much just get hordes of Private Military Contractors who are really in over their soon-to-be-severed heads. And yeah, it’s fun to watch those guys get reduced to their component parts, it doesn’t offer much emotional catharsis.
The problem with putting all your chips on the square labeled Franchise Starter is that you’re sacrificing some of the elements necessary for your film to work as a self-contained artifact in favor of potential future pay-off. Essentially, The Old Guard’s true value will only be known in relation to its later installments, which are surely already in development. For now, though, it’s a promising start, so let’s hope they manage to stick the landing.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson