Synopsis – A covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered.
My Take – Upon release back in 2017, the Image Comics graphic novel, written by Eisner-award-winning author Greg Rucka (Batwoman), with art by Leandro Fernández (Deadpool), was an immediate hit among comic book fans (like myself), owing to its unique take on immortality, guns blazing action and slick humor, making it quite an easy and fun read.
Hence when it was announced that Skydance Media was developing an adaption with Greg Rucka himself penning the screenplay, I too was quite excited! More so with the news that Charlize Theron would be the leading the cast, after all who better could play an axe-wielding immortal warrior?
And with the summer blockbuster season of 2020 gone quite bust due to the ongoing pandemic, it’s only fitting that one of the most intense action films of the year, has released on Netflix, where the world can watch it without worry.
Thankfully, as the director Gina Prince-Blythewood, the first Black woman to ever helm a comic-book film, too has done quite a good job in setting up a potential action franchise for herself. The biggest success comes from how Rucka‘s superb script sticks closely to his original comics, which should indeed please fans of the source material (like myself). Thematically, the story is consistently engaging, exploring ideas of what it means to be a hero and digging deep into the concept of immortality, with powerfully emotional results.
Sure, at 125 minutes, the film is slightly too long for its own good, doesn’t quite rise to meet its ambitious goals and often feels like a slick, trimmed-down version of a more expansive mythology. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen this story of world-weary immortals before, so the obligatory rumination on longevity doesn’t come across as particularly profound or insightful.
Yet, the film manages to be plenty entertaining, as it maintains its stamina throughout the entire run time by building a solid foundation for an inevitable franchise, and as a Netflix film it couldn’t be more easily accessible.
The story follows Andy (Charlize Theron), who was centuries ago known as Andromache of Scythia, but now lives an immortal life for reasons she doesn’t know and has forgotten to understand, but all in hiding. Along with her group of fellow immortal warriors namely Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who first met Andy during the Napoleonic Wars, Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), who once fought on opposite sides during the Crusades, and went on killing each other over and over again until they fell in love, Andy takes on high-risk assignments for well-heeled clients all in the name of doing good for humanity.
However, when their latest mission turns out to be a trap, the warriors realize they’ve been betrayed by Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the former CIA agent who commissioned their services. With their secret exposed, the team have to stay one step ahead of big pharma CEO Merrick (Harry Welling), who intends to experiment on them in order to harness and profit from their secret of immortality. Making matters more complicated, they realize that a new immortal, Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a U.S. Marine who despite being recently killed in the line of duty, woke up unscathed, raising questions which may fully expose them.
Intriguingly, writer Rucka‘s immortals also come with their own unique mythology, establishing that you stay the age you were when you were first killed and that, for some unknown reason, your healing and resurrection powers can cease at any moment. Even if the premise sounds familiar, the film never feels stale as director Prince-Bythewood injects the much-needed energy to the action genre with the film’s diverse cast, its voluminous story, and its clear-cut fight scenes.
However, what she does best here is sketch out the present the strong bonds between the immortals. There’s a lovely scene early on where one of Andy’s cohorts gives her a piece of baklava he’s brought from his last mission. She eats it slowly, savoring all the flavors, and correctly guesses he got it in eastern Turkey. It’s a longstanding game between them. And their identities aren’t just token details, they play a part in the way their characters react, like Nile’s reluctance to kill bad guys, or Nicky and Joe’s emotional kiss in defiance of captors.
Booker is grief-stricken over the mortal family he has lost, and the loss of another lost immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), still reigns on Andy’s mind, thus becoming a cautionary tale about the downside to living for decades on end. Fortunately, Joe and Nicky offer some respite as the group’s token couple, providing some much-needed warmth and affection to Andy and Booker’ comparatively steely natures.
The action sequences are also quite well done here, although they don’t quite rise to the high-octane levels of those in Extraction, they are definitely praise worthy. Here, director Prince-Bythewood and cinematographers Barry Ackroyd and Tami Reiker carefully moderate their action sequences so the shots are full of movement, yet don’t lose sight of who’s fighting who. They follow kicks and punches closely toward their painful destinations on villains’ faces or necks. Bullets don’t fly as freely as they do in series like the John Wick films, but the film still amasses a high body count and its fair share of bloody injuries. After all, these action heroes can take the bullets others can’t and bounce back like video-game characters with many lives.
However, where the film misses the mark, is by refusing to divulge into the character backstories. Since we’re dealing with a team of people who have fought battles for hundreds of years, they’ve seen some stuff, and the film doesn’t shy away from how many times they’ve been in similarly risky situations. But the film never leans into that want. Thought the graphic novel itself didn’t divulge much, except a little into a single homely life Andy lead, which got omitted here, but for a feature adaption, I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case. While the timing is there, it feels like the filmmakers chose to give us beautiful visuals over personal stories.
Performance wise, of course, Charlize Theron is simply terrific! Over time Academy award winning actress has proven that she is physically capable of convincing stunt work, and here once again is entirely believable as an action hero while bringing just the right touch of world-weary resignation required to the role. In a surprising turn, KiKi Layne manages to hold her own against Theron in both the physical and emotional stakes, an impressive feat considering how new she is to the genre.
In supporting roles, Chiwetel Ejiofor manages to sail smoothly with whatever minimal role he had, Matthias Schoenaerts brings in another understated performance and is particularly good in his ability to switch between action and drama. Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli are also equally good, while Harry Melling (Dudley from the Harry Potter film series) makes for a comical villain, stuck in one note. Van Veronica Ngo does well in her small role, which will potentially increase in the sequel. On the whole, ‘The Old Guard’ is a solid, entertaining action thriller uplifted by its compelling characters.
Directed – Gina Prince-Bythewood
Rated – R
Run Time – 125 minutes