It’s been a pretty rough summer for action fans, who are normally used to crowding cooled auditoriums and gorging themselves on delicious buttery popcorn while watching Hollywood light stacks of cash on fire in the pursuit of new, stimulating entertainments. Let’s be clear: Watching movies at home kind of sucks, honestly, if you’re the kind of person who feeds off of the intoxicating buzz of the theatrical experience, that of a crowd united in the thrill of a shared experience, and COVID-19 has made it crystal-clear to many that even the best home theater set-up isn’t going to compare. This has been true for most Netflix original films — the best ones that I’ve watched have always been the ones I’ve managed to catch theatrically (Da 5 Bloods being a notable exception, thanks to the pandemic) — but it’s doubly so for the ones meant to compete neck-and-neck with Hollywood’s offerings. So, in rides Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, to hopefully fill the hole in the action fan’s heart, and it comes close to doing so.
Based on the comic book by Greg Rucka (who penned the screenplay) and artist Leandro Fernandez, The Old Guard tells the story of Nile Freeman (the wonderful Kiki Layne), a Marine stationed in Afghanistan who discovers, after a raid in which she has her throat cut by a terrorist, that she can’t be killed and can be healed from any injury, no matter how severe. She’s soon kidnapped by a mysterious stranger named Andy (Charlize Theron) and put on board a plane to France. It’s there that Andy reveals her full name to the soldier — she’s Andromache of Scythia, a 6700-year-old immortal, who leads a band of likewise gifted folks as they drift from conflict to conflict over the years. There’s Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), a pair of lovers who, originally, were enemies in the Crusades before killing — and falling — for one another, and there’s Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), the youngest member of the group (before Nile joins, obviously), a former French soldier who discovered his immortality during Napolean’s campaign against the Russians.
The group isn’t without its demons, though. Andy’s first partner, Quynh (Veronica Ngo) is lost, having been tortured by the Spanish Inquisition, and, though they don’t know too much about their powers, they do know that they’ll stop working one day. Centuries ago, one of their members was slain during battle, and it’s been a sword of Damocles hanging over Andy’s head for all of these years. She’s less convinced than ever that the human race is worth saving, and is frustrated that her elongated life might have been worthless in the grand scheme of things. But all that changes when the group discovers that they’re being hunted by a Big Pharma executive (Harry Melling, evil as ever) in order for them to be used as lab rats in his money-making scheme. His chief security officer Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) doubts their mission, though, as he’s come to learn a great deal about the immortals and the path that they carve through history.
Rucka’s screenplay has an awfully hard task, in which it has to balance heavy exposition, character-building, and “fun,” and, unsurprisingly, it’s the latter two elements that get the short shrift. Theron’s character growth happens mostly off-screen, and her nihilism, well, never quite feels genuine. She’s still trying to save lives and help people even if she’s complaining while she’s doing it, which drives a notable contrast between other dissatisfied immortals in a similar sphere. I have never quite understood why immortals automatically become soldiers or mercenaries in tales like this unless they’re externally motivated to do so, like in Highlander — the group’s reasoning for their commitment to their perpetual wartime never quite rings true, and Rucka’s posthoc justification for their struggles and suffering is kind of bullshit, honestly. Perhaps I wouldn’t have spent the entire film questioning its premise and its particulars (Do immortals really need to eat or drink if their wounds automatically heal? Do they need to even need to breathe?) had Rucka and Prince-Bythewood not felt it so necessary to make their work so po-faced and serious in between bouts of bloodshed.
There are a number of moments throughout The Old Guard where the pair embrace camp and trod into genuinely amusing and/or fun territory outside of the action. A mid-film defense by Kenzari about his feelings for his long-term lover after a pharma goon derogatorily refers to Marinelli as his “boyfriend” is a stirring embrace of the rhetorical “extra” that genuinely made me smile, and I only wished the film would have felt free enough to go there more often. The action sequences are, for the most part, entertaining, clearly-filmed, and well-choreographed. Occasionally, Prince-Bythewood, a fantastic director who helmed films like Beyond the Lights and Love & Basketball, uses the characters’ Wolverine-like healing factor to decent ends: a fight ends with bones snapped and guts exposed, or, in order to protect a defenseless person, the immortals suck up bullets like sponges while continuing the fight — but it really feels like a dry run for an inevitable sequel that will scale up the action exponentially, much in the same way that it did in the John Wick films.
That franchise, I feel, is the optimum point of comparison for The Old Guard, though doesn’t have the chance of equalling the impossible thrills or beautiful and relatable simplicity of those films, which are, consequently, the reasons for its massive success and subsequent endearment by most action fans. That’s a lofty barrier for any nascent franchise to clear, but it is, perhaps, the best example for its success, no matter how much Prince-Blythewood, Rucka, and, chiefly, Netflix, want this to be the MCU. An ending stinger suggests this, and the streamer has often made big bets on their films becoming franchises without really having the desire to follow through with it after they debut — one need only look at how long it has taken a sequel to Bright to even get somewhere close to production, despite the services’ boasts of its extraordinary success from its own internal metrics (remember how long it took them to greenlight a second season of Stranger Things?).
Perhaps The Old Guard will be the film that truly breaks that trend, as it’s critically beloved in a way that few big-budget films on the platform are and, crucially, it’s alone in the blockbuster landscape for, at the very least, another month. But one has to wonder if it’s benefitting from that lack of competition, and if, in a more crowded marketplace, it might have been forgotten otherwise.