Action movies with loads of gunfights, swordfights and explosions don’t normally leave a lot of breathing room for pesky things like plot or character development. Yes, there’s usually some semblance of a backstory for main characters – generally told in flashbacks – at least enough to glean why they are doing what they do. And, of course, there’s always a plot, even if it’s just a vehicle to move from one expensive action sequence to the next.
The Old Guard, Netflix’s adaptation of the Greg Rucka graphic novel of the same name, is certainly an action movie with all the aforementioned trappings. But it’s also so much more. Not only in the blending of the action/fantasy genres, but in the deft handling of its themes and character development.
The Old Guard tells the story of a covert group of tight-knit mercenaries with a mysterious inability to die. Or, at least, stay dead when they are killed. Led by Andy (Charlize Theron), backed up by Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), the Guard have fought to protect humans for centuries, mostly from themselves.
Andy, having long since tired of humanity’s determination to be the absolute worst at everything, is pulled out of a quasi-hiatus by Booker for an emergency mission, during which the team and their extraordinary abilities are exposed. Now, they have to hunt down and eliminate those who are trying to steal their abilities for profit, as well as guide the young and reluctant Nile (Kiki Layne), the latest immortal soldier to join their ranks.
At one point, newbie Nile asks the group if they’re the good guys or the bad guys, to which Nicky responds, “depends on the century”. What sounds like a pithy quip for the trailer is actually the crux of what the group faces. They fight for what they believe is right, but history is determined by the winners.
The oldest of them, Andy, is bitterly jaded by centuries of fighting and dying for a humanity that couldn’t care less, a humanity that would demonise and ostracise them at every turn. Theron carries the weight of Andy’s lengthy service as an immortal impeccably, with world-weary heavy sighs and the almost-physical pain of staying true to her course visible in every motion. Grief and determination mark her features and her performance, making it yet another role you couldn’t imagine anyone else but Theron in.
Taking her cue from Rucka’s source material, director Gina Prince-Bythewood allows the film to have ample breathing room between the explosive action. The rest of the cast have their tangible moments, and while none are as explored as Andy’s backstory (or directly witnessed in the case of Nile), each team member (old and new) have their moments to shine.
The Old Guard also has representation where it matters. There’s a great diversity in the group, which for major points is led by a woman, with a mix of nationalities, ethnicities and sexual orientations which show up as naturally as breathing.
All this focus on the compelling characters does mean that The Old Guard has a longer than normal runtime, which in some areas borders on slowing down the pacing too much for a solid action film, but the payoff is worth it by the third act thanks to the emotional investment you find you have.
When the action does get going, it goes hard. The gunfights are impressive, but the brutal, visceral hand to hand combat (or the combination of both) is where these scenes really shine. When you’ve got a group of mercenaries that have trained for millennia, watching them cut loose is a heart-pounding experience. This is combined with the very subtle use of CGI on the immortal’s wounds as we get to watch them being injured and healed in a seemingly never-ending cycle. It’s always good to watch a fantasy movie where overblown CGI isn’t the focus.
Unfortunately, I found The Old Guard slightly hamstrung by the genre it finds itself in. When you have a comic book movie, certain types of character arcs and story beats are almost expected at this point. While Prince-Bythewood and Co. handle these tropes refreshingly well, they are nevertheless, tropes.
There’s the point of having a new Guard in the place of audience, who becomes both the catalyst and dumping ground for exposition, as well as the rallying point for the tormented heroes who have to learn to care about humanity again.
The main villain was alas, a parody of a cartoonish, moustache-twirling evil, which was all around a lame effort – though I can’t fault Harry Melling for his performance. He plays up the snivelling pathetic Merrick as the antithesis of the Guard – weak where they are strong, motivated by greed where they have discipline. It’s just a cringey character you’re meant to hate, and perhaps they did the job too well.
Despite those relatively minor drawbacks, The Old Guard is definitely worth your time. Plenty of action combined with plenty of thought-provoking character journeys makes for a deep and introspective, if lengthy, comic-book film.
Last Updated: July 13, 2020