The overwhelming feeling in the early scenes of The Old Guard, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s intermittently thoughtful take on the venerable trope of the superhero team, is one of exhaustion: on the part of the characters at first, and then perhaps just a bit on the part of the viewer, who realizes that they are watching a story that’s been told many times before. But even though it suffers from pacing and originality issues, The Old Guard still tells its story well enough to leave a more thoughtful impression than other typically superficial summer fare.
Andy (Charlize Theron), the leader of a ragtag quartet of immortal warriors who have fought for, rescued, and defended humanity for untold centuries, is tired of the job and wants out. Her team — which also includes Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Mustang), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Joe’s longtime lover Nicky (Luca Marinelli) — are age-old mercenaries with a secret weapon: they can’t die. Battling every kind of enemy over vast spans of time has made them formidable, fearless, and perhaps a little cocky, but it’s still hardly a surprise when a seemingly routine mission turns into a trap.
Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) stages the opening action swiftly and intensely, even if the movie is clearly made on a middle-of-the-road Netflix budget (it lacks the full scope that might have sold it as a summer blockbuster, had the film been able to take that route). Her efficiency and the instant appeal of the cast go a long way at first, even as the script (by longtime comics writer Greg Rucka, based on the graphic novel by him and artist Leandro Fernández) goes through paces native to both standard action thrillers and superhero epics.
Andy — whose real name is Andromache the Scythian and whose lifespan may predate known history — sees the team as her family and their mission as working for the greater good of humankind: they’ve not only saved and protected untold numbers of people over the years, but some of those they’ve rescued have gone on to better the species. Yet Andy is losing faith in herself and the team’s goals — no matter what they do, little seems to change in an increasingly shitty age. “The world isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse,” says Andy.
She and Booker are equally jaded, while Joe and Nicky’s ennui is tempered by their genuine love for each other (“His kiss still thrills me, even after a millennium,” says Kenzari’s Joe, as he and Marinelli sell their chemistry with a visceral warmth). The group’s longtime dynamic, however, is upended by the discovery — the first in centuries — of a new immortal named Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), a U.S. Marine whose own revelation that she cannot die no matter how hard someone tries to kill her means she must be ripped away from both her job and any contact with her family.
Nile reluctantly becomes a member of the team as they pursue the man who betrayed them — an ex-CIA agent named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The latter is working for a sadistic pharmaceutical tycoon named Merrick (Harry Melling) who wants to get his hands on the Old Guard’s DNA and see what makes them stay alive, even if he has to slice them to bits to do so. You can see the confrontation coming well in advance, and there’s even another betrayal around the corner that feels all too inevitable.
Secret societies, evil corporations, reluctant heroes, immortal warriors — we’ve seen all this before, but what makes it work this time is Prince-Bythewood’s sure-handed direction and the movie’s sense of empathy and melancholy. Although the middle of the film slows down to a point where one could get impatient, there is a sadness to the characters that sets them apart.
Andy and Booker are tired of the pain (just because they don’t die doesn’t mean they don’t feel every wound) and the seeming futility of their mission, while Nile grapples with the lonely reality that everyone she knows and loves will die as she continues to live. In other words, immortality may sound cool but it’s really not. Not at all.
In one horrific flashback, Andy recalls how her original companion and lover, a woman named Quynh (Veronica Ngo), was locked in a cage and thrown into the ocean to keep drowning and coming back to life. Full of despair over the human race now? Try seeing this kind of wanton cruelty and viciousness play out over millennia, the film seems to say. It adds a layer of humanity to the characters that helps The Old Guard occasionally rise above the conventions of its story.
The cast does a lot of heavy lifting too, with Schoenaerts and Layne doing excellent work and Melling chewing the scenery like a high-on-his-own-supply Martin Shkreli. In the end, however — as you might expect — the movie belongs to Theron, back in action mode after superb forays into the genre with Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde. She not only makes the fighting scenes look effortless, but she remains an actress who can appear sublimely cool and unflappable one minute before blasting you with raw emotion and agony the next — and make it all work cohesively and movingly.
The Old Guard may live up to its title in some ways and may not deliver anything of a particularly new vintage, but it’s still served up in a reasonably fresh manner. True to its genre, the film’s climax never quite raises the stakes even while laying the groundwork for a sequel — and then driving the point home with a bonus scene. If enough people watch, these immortals will likely be with us for a long time to come.
The Old Guard premieres on Netflix this Friday (July 10).