3.5 out of 5
One of the industries that is still somewhat in limbo due to the COVID-19 pandemic is film. Many of the big blockbusters, the "tent pole" films have not been released as planned. From Daniel Craig's final(?) outing as James Bond to Gal Gadot giving us a heaping helping of 80's nostalgia in the Wonder Woman sequel, many films have been pushed to Autumn and Winter 2020. There have been notable exceptions, Artemis Fowl, Disclosure and even Will Ferrell's Eurovision saga. All have found their audiences on streaming platforms to largely good reviews (apart from Artemis Fowl).
This new film from Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Old Guard would have been one of the big summer films in cinemas. It has a big name, Charlize Theron and loads of action. We have seen Theron carry action films on her own before. 2017's Atomic Blonde was an action-filled delight. She drops the sexy assassin look for a gritter performance here as the leader of a band of (almost?) immortal mercenaries who are being investigated by a BIG-pharma company to exploit their longevity. As they are exposed and hunt down those responsible, they are joined by a new immortal member played by KiKi Layne.
The Old Guard, while not entirely fresh (hands up who is old enough to remember Highlander?), is not weighed down by the baggage of universe-building that has trapped many films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is some obligatory exposition and it is done with style and only when necessary - are you listening Artemis Fowl?
Apart from the action set pieces, one of the core questions posed by the film is just because you can live forever doesn’t mean you’d want to, especially if a substantial portion of your life is devoted to fighting what over the centuries have come to feel like endless battles against what you hope is evil (can we ever be really sure?). It gets old, as Andromache of Scythia says. You can call her Andy. Everyone else does.
After all, things aren’t getting better, one character muses. They’re getting worse.
That’s the premise of the film, presumably intended as a franchise kick-off, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández (Rucka wrote the screenplay), The Old Guard is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed “Love & Basketball” and “The Secret Life of Bees,” among others.
It’s not genre action elevated to art, but it points in that direction. There’s a lot of soul-searching among the bunch between bullet-spraying, neck-breaking fights.
In addition to Andy, who’s been doing this so long she can’t remember when she started, there’s Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), who killed each other during the Crusades while fighting on different sides, but somewhere along the line became, and remain, lovers.
As we learn in an ambush early on, the group’s members can be injured and seemingly killed — they certainly feel pain. But they heal astonishingly quickly. Bullets pop out of their skin, stab wounds close, fractures mend, etc. Thus, even when ambushed, they win most of their battles.
While they’re wondering if it all means anything, a young Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne) has her throat cut in Afghanistan and, to her great surprise, recovers. Her fellow soldiers are pretty surprised, too. Nile becomes a reluctant recruit — Andy basically kidnaps her — and slowly comes around to what her heretofore undiscovered powers mean.
Meanwhile there’s a new bad guy to reckon with: Merrick (Harry Melling), a bratty brainiac who likes to refer to himself as the youngest billionaire in pharma. Maybe it sounds good at the parties he goes to, but it’s a curious bragging point. Anyway, Merrick wants to study what makes Andy and the others immortal so that he can monetise it, and he understands that he can basically experiment on them forever, or at least until he figures it all out. It’s not like they’re going to die.
A criminally under-used Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a former CIA operative who is crucial to the various goings on, another member of a genuinely impressive cast. He doesn’t do much fighting, but the others do, and Prince-Bythewood proves accomplished at directing set pieces that run toward the more balletic bone-crunching examples of the genre.
There are some double-crosses and a few kinks in the whole immortality bit, all of which make The Old Guard a more thoughtful movie than we expect from this kind of thing. It’s too long — it certainly feels longer than its nearly two-hour running time — and Merrick, frankly, isn’t a satisfyingly threatening villain.
Then again, maybe he’s not the only villain. The foibles of human nature are what Andy is really fighting against, and it remains an uphill battle.
The reveal at the end is not that surprising but does set up a sequel nicely.