The “old” in The Old Guard is a lot older than old school. It’s a lot older than old fashioned. It might even be older than Olde English. Old Testament? Well, maybe it’s not quite that old.
The new Netflix film from director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a secret about its mercenaries who make up the titular group, but it foreshadows the secret in the cold open, and lets the cat out of the bag entirely by the 15-minute mark. Which means I’m not too worried about revealing it here. Then again, you could also stop reading, now that I’ve tiptoed around warning you about spoilers. Really, this film will be a lot easier to discuss once we get the secret out of the way.
Charlize Theron and her three male companions (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) are gunned down at that 15-minute mark. They’re supposed to be rescuing a group of kidnapped South Sudanese children, but instead are led into a chamber where they are sitting ducks for a dozen gunmen who riddle them with bullets. Our heroes indeed appear to be dead, which would be a great joke to play on an unsuspecting audience.
After a minute or two, though, they begin stirring, and their wounds begin closing of their own accord. That’s bad news for the gunmen standing dumbfounded, who thought they had “cleared the room.” Well, that room is not clear, but it’s clear there’s something up with these mercenaries.
Yes, it turns out that they are immortals. They have already been alive for centuries, doing some variation on the current rescue mission; and in some cases, much longer than that. Which takes a movie that looks like it might play out like an earlier Netflix release from 2020, the Chris Hemsworth-starring Extraction, and gives it a new flavour entirely.
Charlize Theron is a logical candidate for a prestige action movie like The Old Guard, having also recently appeared in the action- and stunt-heavy films Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road. Gina Prince-Bythewood, on the other hand, is not. Her three previous features are Love & Basketball (2000), The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Beyond the Lights (2014). Given the talent she’d displayed in those realistic human dramas, it’s a shame she must continue making movies only at six- to eight-year intervals. Now that she’s proven she can make an action movie about immortal soldiers, maybe her next project will come all the sooner.
The story involves the recruitment of a new immortal, the first unveiled in more than 200 years. That’s Nile, played by KiKi Layne, who was so good in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk. She’s a U.S. marine serving in Afghanistan, who discovers she’s unkillable when a hostile takes a swipe at her throat with his knife. She awakens in a military hospital with a bandage on her neck, but the bandage isn’t really necessary, as the normally fatal knife wound hasn’t even left a scratch.
Meanwhile, the immortals have all dreamt of her, as they have a supernatural kinship with others who are like them. They need to track her down and bring her into the fold, as is their custom, but they have a potentially more pressing worry: to fend off a team of shady operatives and scientists, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Harry Melling, who want to poke and prod them to discover the secrets of their immortality. They mean to cage them indefinitely – the only fate with any real stakes for a person who cannot die.
With her history of reality-based films, Prince-Bythewood seems uniquely suited to under-selling this material. There would be ways to drive it seriously into the fantasy realm, with a lot of special effects and too much backstory for anyone to keep track of, but Prince-Bythewood and writer Greg Rucka (adapting his own comic) smartly go more minimal on the world building. Which is not to say they don’t build a world, just that they are conscious of not alienating their action audience with too much material that could slouch toward tired vampire tropes and the like.
Sometimes, this makes the film seem a bit small. Despite its $70 million budget – making Prince-Bythewood the first woman of colour to direct a big-budget comic book film – The Old Guard feels like it has been made with an eye toward budgetary restrictions. Although it trots the globe and was partly shot on location in Morocco, the film does have an element of seeming more contained than a high concept like this normally would.
That may also be one of its strengths. The immortals are meant to fade into the background, and have been doing so for centuries – a task made more difficult with the advent of smart phones and omnipresent security cameras. They are meant to be a part of our world, not us a part of theirs.
Without having to create a giant climax where some demon the size of a building is spawned from the earth, The Old Guard can instead focus on its strengths: the action set pieces that have become a staple of Theron’s recent work, and the healing effects used to show the immortals recovering from their injuries. The fight choreography might not be up to Atomic Blonde or John Wick levels, but it has a neatness, compactness and clarity that makes it a joy to watch.
As we might expect from her, Prince-Bythewood also clearly cares about character. You would imagine that these people have developed unique connections with one another over the course of centuries together. Among two of the men, that includes a passionate love affair that far exceeds all the pedestrian language of the poets, as described in one memorable speech by Marwan Kenzari’s Joe – right before he plants a long kiss on the mouth of Luca Marinelli’s Nicky, as their captors look on in confusion.
Nearly any film dealing with immortals is going to be burdened by the long cinematic history of the subject, and The Old Guard only finds true originality here and there, in little moments. That’s enough for a film debuting on Netflix in July, when most years we would have been gorging ourselves on $200 million Hollywood blockbusters for several months now. This is definitely preferable.