I think I should inform you upfront that Netflix’s The Old Guard was always going to be my cup of tea, no matter what. Five immortal warriors from various historical time periods come together to fight the powers-that-be? That has me written all over it. So forgive me if I’m a little bit biased, but yes – The Old Guard is just as good as I had hoped it would be. It doesn’t necessarily exceed my expectations (and in certain places, it did let me down a little), but there’s no doubt in my mind that this will be a movie I rewatch time and time again while I wait for the sequel that director Gina Prince-Bythewood clearly wants to make, based on this film’s very unsubtle ending.
The Old Guard was marketed as a nonstop action movie, and that’s definitely not untrue – but I think what was left out of the trailers and promotional material for this film is the extent to which this is actually a drama. If you’re going into this expecting something comparable to Netflix’s Extraction, with brutal fight scenes filling every available moment of runtime, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. And while that might sound strange, considering this film’s entire concept, it actually pays off in the end: The Old Guard delivers on action when it needs to, but it still tells a complex and thoughtful character-driven story about people trying to find meaning and purpose in their overextended existence. We’ll see if that tactic pays off with audiences, but I truly hope it does because did I mention this film sets up a sequel?
If audiences are looking for the next Extraction, however…well, the action scenes in The Old Guard do leave something to be desired. The characters’ fighting styles lack any noticeable sense of finesse or historicity – though they each come equipped with their own weapon of choice from their respective centuries, they’re more often than not just carrying guns, which does feel a bit underwhelming: especially considering how much the huge, double-bladed battleaxe that Charlize Theron’s Andy (short for Andromache the Scythian) wields was played up in the trailers and posters. And though the action scenes get better as the film goes along, there are several that feel relatively middle-of-the-road: not bad, but not cleverly choreographed or visually interesting enough to capture attention. Apart from the climactic third act battle, the strongest fight is one in a drug-smuggler’s plane where Andy and her new recruit, U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne) wrestle in a battle that requires their wits just as much as, if not more than, their physical strength. Is The Old Guard perhaps too clever for its own good occasionally? Perhaps.
That being said, each of the five members of the team does possess healing capabilities that allow them to walk away from any injury, no matter how fatal, without harm – and that is something which is incorporated very well into the film’s writing. It can sometimes rob the tension from action scenes, but it drives the entire plot: it’s the reason why the team has survived as long as they have; it’s the reason why they’re on the run (because pharmaceutical corporations want to capture them and harvest their powers); and it’s, ironically, the reason why they can never be free from pain – unable to die, they have been forced to watch as humanity continues its self-destructive cycle of violence, as their families, loved ones and descendants grow old and perish around them. One of the team members, Napoleonic War veteran Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), tells a heartbreaking account of how his youngest son, dying of cancer, became consumed with jealousy of his immortal father. I’ve seen the concept of immortality tackled countless times in film and TV, but never as well as it is here.
But the film would never have succeeded at selling its hard-to-swallow subject matter without the efforts of its flawless cast. Charlize Theron, unsurprisingly, brings her all to the lead role of Andy, who has lived for so long she’s almost forgotten where and when she came from – but it’s not hard to figure out that she was once one of ancient Greece’s most fearsome war heroines. Kiki Layne, who comes into her own later in the film, shows the makings of a true action hero – and she just happened to do so at the best possible time, considering that the internet is currently fiercely debating who should play Storm in Marvel’s upcoming reboot of the X-Men franchise. Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli play opponents in the Crusades who, after having had to kill each other many times, ended up falling in love – not only did I greatly appreciate the genuine and meaningful LGBTQ+ representation (they actually kiss and show affection for each other!), but I was pleased to discover that Kenzari isn’t anywhere near as bland an actor as his role in Aladdin seemed to suggest. Chiwetel Ejiofor has a smaller role in the film as the team’s constant stalker, CIA agent Copley: who is very clever and very dangerous…but also very offscreen for most of the time.
Time is something our immortal protagonists have in plenty, but the film itself doesn’t have quite enough, in my opinion. The Old Guard is just a little over two hours long, but those hours seem to fly by at an alarming rate, and it sometimes feel like we reach certain story beats too early. But while I would criticize that aspect of the movie, I also have to admire that it made me want even more. I’ve mentioned the sequel bait twice already, but third time’s the charm, am I right? Don’t worry, no spoilers here – but let’s just say, there’s a lot of potential for this franchise going forward, if Netflix chooses to go forward.
Will they? Hard to say, what with coronavirus still turning the world upside-down every few minutes and forcing studios to prioritize like never before. But there’s definitely no reason not to, unless the film massively underwhelms audiences – but as someone who doesn’t want to see Extraction ripoffs from now until the end of time, I appreciated this more clever, introspective type of thriller, and I wouldn’t object to another one.
Movie Rating: 8.9/10