[Movie Review] THE OLD GUARD

Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s adaptation of Greg Rucka’s comic book THE OLD GUARD is in a unique predicament – it’s one of very few major summer blockbusters to receive any kind of release this year.

With this in mind, it’s understandable why there would be a certain degree of anticipation for such a release. After all, if lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that entertainment is an invaluable resource, and genre films such as these offer the type of escapism that would normally draw hordes of folks to a movie theater. That said, there’s something about this Netflix original that makes it feel very “at home” (no pun intended) on the small screen. Despite being a big-budget action movie, THE OLD GUARD is more concerned with ideas than mere spectacle.

The film follows a diverse team of soldiers, led by Andy (Charlize Theron), with the rest of the group consisting of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). They collectively share one big secret – they’re immortal. Well, at least sort of immortal. They are susceptible to pain and injuries, whether it be a broken bone or bullet wound. Shortly after, these wounds suddenly heal, for reasons unbeknownst to anyone. As a result of their condition, these mercenaries have been alive for centuries. The only catch is that someday their wounds will stop healing and they’ll die, just like everyone else, but it’s unknown when that will happen.

When their secret is exposed to a wealthy businessman named Merrick (Harry Melling), they are forced to stay low in an effort to avoid being captured. Meanwhile, they’re introduced to Nile (Kiki Layne) – a Marine who discovers that she too shares the same gift of immortality. Andy coerces her into joining their group, teaching her everything they know.

THE OLD GUARD – Charlize Theron (“Andy”); Kiki Layne (“Nile”) Photo Credit: AIMEE SPINKS/NETFLIX ©2020

On paper, THE OLD GUARD‘s premise involving immortal superheroes runs the risk of feeling gimmicky. Instead, this core idea functions as the film’s DNA, embodying every sequence and character as it explores the ramifications of immortality with more insight than one might expect. How would centuries of experiencing violence firsthand affect a person? What impact would it have on their moral compass and outlook on humanity?

It’s a story told with a sincere approach that makes for a surprisingly thoughtful action movie. With that said, this sincerity does lead to some clichéd dialogue (“everything happens for a reason” is uttered early on in the film) as well as moments that feel more conventional than one might hope. Additionally, the film is comprised of a bit too much downtime, though this downtime does offer a handful of contemplative moments of world-building.

The action that is presented is gritty and grounded given the fantastical nature of the film’s premise. Each gunshot and blow has weight to it and is often satisfying to watch. These sequences emphasize the fact that, though they may be immortal, these five heroes are not above pain, making every hit truly matter. Sometimes the editing in these sequences can feel somewhat hectic, but the choreography itself is solid.

As far as the rest of the presentation goes, THE OLD GUARD unexpectedly stumbles when it comes to its music. Song choices can range from either bizarre to heavy-handed, sounding as if they’d work better in the context of promotional material rather than in the actual film. In some instances, it, unfortunately, breaks the immersion of the scene. The instrumental score itself is serviceable and syncs up nicely with the film’s rhythmic pacing.

THE OLD GUARD (2020) – clockwise from top: Matthias Schoenaerts (“BookerÕ), Charlize Theron (“Andy”), Luca Marinelli (“NickyÓ).
Photo Credit: AIMEE SPINKS/NETFLIX ©2020

Theron and Layne are undoubtedly the film’s highlights. After the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, the former proves once again that she is more than capable of carrying an action film of any size with utmost confidence. The latter, meanwhile, presents us with an instantly likeable and realized performance of a seemingly ordinary woman turned extraordinary as well as a protégé turned leader.

Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast can seem a tad underdeveloped. It’s undeniably fascinating to hear about the background of these soldiers and their encyclopedic knowledge – when Niles asks them if they’re “good guys or bad guys,” they respond simply with, “depends on the century.” It’s clear that they have a great deal of history behind them as a team, but it can sometimes be difficult to form a connection with them individually. Additionally, there are some character decisions made later on in the film that felt questionable at best given what we do know about them. It’s hard not to wonder if the material here would work better as a TV series, as it likely would provide ample time to explore its environment and the people who inhabit it.

With all that said, THE OLD GUARD concludes its two-hour runtime with the foundation for a sequel or several of them. The potential is undeniably exciting, as future sequels could really hone in on what makes this film work best. Regardless of whether or not this is truly the start of a franchise, THE OLD GUARD has enough on its mind to win over a fan base looking for a comic book blockbuster that’s not quite like what we’ve seen in the past several years.

THE OLD GUARD is now streaming on Netflix.

Tom Milligan
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