Actress Charlize Theron is an invariable darling for any director. Bearing a sundry resumé of roles she’s played on screen for close to twenty five years, she’s undoubtedly maintained her viability with a charisma and prowess that certainly meets the demand for the leading lady of a narrative action film, and much like she’s accomplished with Aeon Flux (2005), Hancock (2008) and eventually with George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017), Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, now on Netflix, is no exception.
Based on the Eisner award-winning comic book, the benefits certainly lie with the film having author Greg Rucka on board as writer, to develop and cohese together a feasible story that can not only keep the pace going, but also give reverence to some of the introspection of our characters. Some of it borders on tedious and filler, but the film eventually makes up for it by doing what it sets out to do in all its action-packed, explosive and blood-letting glory, with plenty of fight scenery to meet the demand, and a cast fully invested in the work, and it shows.
The Old Guard is set in a world that largely has no idea its got handful of immortals living in secret – save for a few nefarious and powerful types. After a year apart, Andy (Theron) reunites with her undying comrades, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the mutually exclusive Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) – all of whom have survived from one millenia to another, with Andy being the eldest of the quartet. For each of their lifetimes, they’ve fought, bled and died performing deeds in commitment to doing good in the world. For Andy though, their efforts have barely left a dent in making the world a better place, if any, and frankly, she’s tired of it.
Still, she agrees to a third-world street market meet-and-greet with CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to be debriefed on what what firstly appears to be good faith rescue operation following an attack on a school in South Sudan. Her reluctance notwithstanding, she takes the job and leads her team to infiltrate the camp where seventeen school children are believed to be held hostage, only to get double-crossed and shot and murdered on the spot. Once recovered and having managed to fight their way out before realizing the betrayal, the flustered team sets out to find Copley and silence him so as to hide their footprints.
However, it isn’t long before their mid-REM clairvoyance picks up on another immortal similar to them – an American Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne) whose death soon comes into question when her sudden recovery spooks her unit, effectively casting her out. More confused and alone than she’s ever been, Nile’s new lease on life soon brings her into Andy’s closed circle, with questions of purpose and fate culminating around the conundrum that is her immortality. They trek from the Middle East and into Europe hiding as they hunt down the man who not only left them for dead, but may have exposed them to a world where life-and-death should only remain a two-sided coin, and as they reach the point of no return, it will be up to Nile to find the courage and resolve she needs to help lead the charge.
Prince-Bythewood and Rucka craft a palpable and entertaining fantasy graphic novel thriller with phenomenal performances led by Theron, whose portrayal of Andy lends fans a stoic heroine inherently worth rooting for.
The film takes on underlying narratives pertaining to the ongoing issues that plague the world, and uses this as a wedge into unraveling Andy’s character development opposite her comrades. She has a functioning moral compass, but she’s tormented with the loss of fellow immortal over the years, including Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), whose whereabouts, or even status of living, remains unknown since they were both condemned as witches once upon a time.
Andy is all but fed up with humanity in all its trivality and recalcitrance toward the progress she’s tried to help engineer as one of the world’s oldest living people. She understands, full well, the human condition and what makes people tick, and often tinkers with the idea, and even hope that maybe she’ll someday. This isn’t to say that she’s the only one in the group who shares these feelings. For Booker, Joe and Nicky, there’s a collective understanding about the way things are, though they’re more willing to see through an optimistic lens in terms of their role in the world. As Nicky puts it earlier in the film to Andy as she gazes out of a window, pensive and wary as to what lies ahead, “…This is what we do.”
Kenzari and Marinelli work terrifically together as on-screen couple Joe and Nicky. Frankly speaking, they’re as connected in their romance and love for each other as they are in combat, exuding love and camraderie with more universal brilliance in the writing and performance of their characters than any scene in Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Schoenaerts’s Booker comes with a few layers of his own, and he’s definitely a dark horse among the quintet to an extent, and could even be considered as the one closest to Andy, in a certain sense – it’s really just a question of how, with respect to his own morality. Layne serves as a remarkable and quite young new addition to the group as Nile, whose exposure to the group’s battlefield travails reveals an almost glaring horror that intially makes her question if a life of leaving dead bodies behind in fresh pools of blood is really what she wants. The script staggers just a little bit on this end, but pays well off when she starts to see bigger picture, which is, in part, where Ejiofor’s character comes in – Copley – who himself struggles to mitigate between his own agenda, and that Dr. Merrick (Harry Melling), a sinster quack scientist curious to learn the secrets behind immortality and how to use it to further his own corporate ends.
The action takes on a variety of elements for each character. Andy’s knowledge of killing and weaponry far surpasses that of her team, all who’ve fought among many armies in different centuries and wars as far back as the Crusades. The kills are as tastefully gory for the average R-rated action movie fan, and while the first major scene suffers from cinematography that echoes a little Greengrass a la Jason Bourne (2016), the rest of the action looks feasibly entertaining, with plenty of wide-enough shots to showcase our characters in action.
It matters especially for Theron whose vast knowledge on killing needed to be demostrated with the kind of clarity that action films like this demand, and particularly because her scenes elevate the film’s action; Prince-Bythewood would do well to take a page or two from Atomic Blonde for future posterity in action direction, just to be sure. The second, most entertaining moment of the film’s action and brutality arrives with Kenzari who commands the screen in a post two-on-one fight with Nicky opposite Merrick’s private security force leader, Keane, played by Joey Ansah.
As far as franchise starters go, The Old Guard is slightly vulnerable in some areas to critique, but manages amply well to hold the line and maintain its standing as a certifiable introduction to fans. With Layne’s nascient and promising attachment to the film, it’s a wholly deserving reward to its present and future cast, including Theron, who, as she hands the reigns of the role of Furiosa to a future actress in her post-Fury Road career, remains nothing short of prospective in the posterity of her own action stardom.