"It's a very fulfilling but lonely experience."
Attached to neither Marvel nor DC, Netflix's The Old Guard is in a world unto its own. Working on curating a franchise for the streaming service, director Gina Prince-Bythewood successfully captures the raw intensity and attitude necessary to grab and withhold your attention as you witness a group of immortals struggle with, well, immortality.
With a clever mixture of intense action, wholesome humor, and highly choreographed fight sequences, The Old Guard mimics the personality of its lead, Charlize Theron, steadily adapting to the situation and giving viewers precisely what they expect; nothing more, nothing less.
To an extent, the expectant quality is what frustrates me most. In a world full of innovative storytelling, the film rarely alters course, staying the path regardless of its future consequences. It isn't a harsh critique, really, but it is one I had hoped I wouldn't have to make. (That, and the lack of fully realized character backstory.) This group of misfits is a mystery, both to themselves and us. Though many questions exist, hardly any are answered.
Based on Greg Rucka's graphic novel of the same name, the film showcases our lead protagonists as they take on an evil pharm-tech CEO and his entourage of heavily armed minions. It isn't anything revolutionary, but somehow, Prince-Bythewood can splash a new coat of blood into a genre that has been dominated by the formulaic approach of one powerhouse studio for more than a decade.
The immortal fighters - lead by the fearless Andy (Theron) - all share the same power, not dying. They don't have exuberant costumes or alter egos, and they don't fully understand the inner workings of what made them what they are. But when those minions hit them with a slew of bullets, they fall, bleed, and then heal…quickly—returning the favor on their unexacting attackers.
Andy is the boss of the group because she has been at it the longest. Her teammates include Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), lovers who met on opposite sides of the Crusades, and Booker (Matthias Schownaerts), Andy's second in command who joined during the Napoleonic Wars. While all of these members acknowledge their roles within the team's confines, much of The Old Guard centers on the initiation of the group's newest unknowing member, a Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne).
There have been others over the last several centuries. Nile learns, as she is struggling with her immortality, that the "power" comes with a bit of fine print. No, the film doesn't venture into vampire territory with a stake through the heart or an allergic reaction to the sun. The Old Guard is better than that. Its clause proves a bit more philosophical, centered on time. It comes for everyone, sooner or later, and they are no exception.
It is an exciting element that gives the story an added layer of complexity and a sense of uncertainty. Though the group acts as if they will live forever, at some point, they will not.
Though they have begun to lose their vocation, the group has existed for generations, seeing themselves as a kind of nongovernmental humanitarian force. That said, they mostly kill people who are doing things they shouldn't be. The contradiction is an issue for Nile and brings into focus an ethical challenge that the film never fully works out. It's nice to hear about the great things the group has done, and how we are all connected through generational fate, but we all tuned in to watch them beating the shit out of people. To us, blood is good, no matter the cause.
To this Prince-Bythewood commits, keeping the action quick and avoiding the standard C.G.I.-heavy blunders that often distract her colleagues. She has a history of anchoring her stories in authentic, humane characters. The Old Guard proves no different, even if she does have unambiguous characters to depict.
*This film is streaming globally on Netflix.