THE OLD GUARD Puts a Fresh Spin on an Old Formula

Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the jump to big time action movies

The Old Guard has all the trappings of the next great action series. It has a group of bad ass immortal warriors, the cast is dynamic and diverse, the action is rocking. But for as many genre conventions as The Old Guard puts a fresh spin on, there are cliches that it can’t avoid. It’s a film that inspires as often as it frustrates. It’s not hard to imagine this film topping Netflix’s daily Top 10 and generating the buzz of a surprise summer hit. I hope the movie does well enough for this creative team to make a follow up. But, mostly, I wish I enjoyed The Old Guard more. For all of the interesting things it does, I could never quite get on the film’s wavelength. I respected the film more than I enjoyed it, and there is plenty to admire.

Based on the comic by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez and adapted by Rucka, The Old Guard follows a group of elite mercenaries, led by Andy (Charlize Theron). Their latest mission goes sideways and suddenly the hunters have become the hunted. That’s when The Old Guard blossoms and shifts gears from standard issue action movie into something with more bite. Andy (short for Andromache of Scythia) and her team are immortal. They’ve lived through centuries and seen the best and worst of humanity up close. And now their secret has been discovered and the sneering, cartoonish Merrick (Harry Melling) wants to figure out how to take their immortality and sell it to the masses.

As The Old Guard unspools, it becomes clear that the film’s secret weapon is director Gina Prince-Bythewood. She built her name with Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, and displayed a knack for thoughtful, emotionally rich stories. The Old Guard represents a jump in genre and scope for Prince-Bythewood. But she ports over the things that made her previous films successful and bends the superhero origin story to her will. She continues to use music well, and sets many action scenes to R&B. It’s a great change of pace from the usual crunching rock songs and filters the action through a different lens. It helps re-orient the audience’s focus. Instead of zeroing in on the violence, the music guides you toward the underlying drama. If nothing else, it’s a choice that stands out and makes you take note.

Where many action stories are content to play the short game with the challenges facing their heroes, The Old Guard again aims for something else. Instead of saving the world from an imminent threat, it takes a few generations for the benefits of their actions to come to fruition. It sets up an interesting dichotomy for Andy and her team. Their work is ultimately validated, but the road to vindication is littered with the trail of dead they leave in their wake.

Over the centuries Andy and her team, in addition to making the world a better place and evolving their combat skills, have incurred immense grief. It’s taken a toll on the team as everyone from Andy down to Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), have seen too many people they care about suffer and die. At one point Andy laments that she doesn’t even remember what her mother looks like. Her sorrow is reflected in the fresh pain of the team’s newest member, Nile (KiKi Layne), as she realizes that she’s going to watch her family age and die while she’ll stay young forever.

Pain is something shared by Andy’s team and Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a widower who pieces together the truth about the team and sees potential in exposing their secret. While Copley wants to harness immortality (if such a thing can even be done) for the betterment of humanity, Copley’s partner, Merrick, sees an opportunity for profit. Merrick is the kind of guy willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to get his way. As he tells potential investors, “investment drives my enthusiasm to take risks.” As a villain, Merrick is fairly generic, but he’s a reasonable analog for the big pharma companies who are capable of inflicting as much pain and suffering on humanity as anybody.

The Old Guard starts and ends strong, leaving viewers wanting more stories with Andy and Nile. My initial reaction to the movie was that it was just okay, if not a bit underwhelming. But in the hours since I finished it and while thinking about it for this review, The Old Guard has grown on me. I hope Prince-Bythewood gets to make the sequel this film sets up. It does such a good job laying out the emotional stakes of this world that it would be a shame if they don’t get to continue exploring it.

The Old Guard hits Netflix on July 10th, 2020

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