The most remarkable thing about Netflix’s The Old Guard isn’t necessarily its action sequences, its cast, or even its story. Its the sense of reality present in every scene. Grounded and pragmatic, it’s a superhero film that’s decidedly lacking in flights of fancy. For a film about immortal assassins, it’s surprisingly but refreshingly mundane.
Said immortals are led by Andromache the Scythian (Charlize Theron), but you can call her Andy. For centuries — or millennia in Andy’s case — this small group has traveled the world in secret, using their unparalleled combat skills to save and protect. When the group’s identity is discovered, Andy and her team must evade capture by people who would exploit their abilities for profit. At the same time, they must find and train a Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne), newly awakened to her own immortality.
Based on the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay, The Old Guard is possibly one of the most down-to-earth superhero films in recent memory. There are no physics-breaking displays of power, no intergalactic conspiracies, no monstrous antagonists. We’re never even given an explanation as to why the characters are immortal in the first place.
And that’s all a good thing. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has crafted a film that aims to balance intricate action set pieces with quiet character drama. We get to see the immortals as warriors and as people both at the same time. She leans sometimes too heavily on the drama side of things at times, and there are stretches of the film where the drama is all there is, but between Rucka’s assured script and Prince-Bythewood’s camera, there is a distinct humanity running through each of the characters.
Charlize Theron is, of course, the main highlight of the film. Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road have already proven that Theron has the ability to anchor an action film, and she effortlessly slip’s into Andy’s skin. The present day Andy is jaded and cynical, no-nonsense often to the point of indifference. But flashbacks to Andy’s past allow her to show a more passionate, emotional side of the character. In either case, Theron is magnetic, giving Andy a unique charisma that’s impossible to deny.
Theron handles the film’s action scenes just as well. Andy and her team fight in a blend of styles and tactics that’s hard to quantify but fits them very well. After all, if you’ve been fighting for hundreds of years, you’re going to pick up tricks from all over. The choreography in these scenes is intricate and impressive, and the line of action in them flows in a beautiful kind of chaos. Unlike a confusing MCU quick-cut montage, the action is sometimes so fluid and frenetic that it becomes a kind of all-encompassing and immersive blur. The action scenes take full advantage of the film’s R rating, as well, although the brutality never slides into grotesquery.
But Andy doesn’t do this alone. Her team are all compelling personalities in their own right. Nile, as the newest member and audience surrogate, gets the most screen time. Kiki Layne plays Nile as tough but vulnerable, an innocent kind of noble warrior. Her idealism and youthful energy play well against Andy’s world-weariness, and the two have have a great rapport that builds and evolves organically as the film proceeds.
However, the film’s best chemistry exists between Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), two warriors from the Crusades who met each other as enemies and ended up falling in love. From their first scene, the bond between the characters is clear, and they come off almost as the heart of the operation. From a purely representational standpoint, it’s refreshing to see two gay main characters who are also remarkably competent fighters and confident in both themselves and their relationship. One of the film’s best scenes involves Joe poetically describing his feelings toward Nicky when someone throws a bit of homophobia at them.
The film actually has a fair amount of queer subtext to it beyond Joe and Nicky, though. Glimpses into Andy’s past reveal a relationship with another female immortal that has very strong Xena/Gabrielle vibes, and the fact that Andy’s signature weapon is a labrys just strengthens that energy. Then there’s the idea that nobody knows why some people become immortal, and the fact that the immortals have to keep their identities secret to avoid persecution. It’s no “Have you tried not being a mutant?“, but as a queer lover of comics and superheroes, it drew me in.
As great as the film is, there are some pacing issues that have to be addressed. After an action-packed opening that runs smoothly and steadily, the film’s energy just kind of…stops for a while. It picks back up again, but there’s a relatively sedate section in the first half where the film becomes a bit too grounded for its own good. It happens around the same time that a feeling creeps in that this is a kind of backdoor pilot episode for a longer series. By the end of Act 2, the sense that this is an origin issue becomes impossible to deny. While that might be part and parcel of the comic book film genre, the sheer nakedness of the film’s sequel hook ending is a little disappointing.
That might not be so bad, though. The Old Guard is a remarkably solid and entertaining superhero film, grounded and mature in the same vein as something like Logan. Anchored by fully-human characters played by a talented cast, it’s an efficient mix of action, philosophy, and emotion that makes the idea that immortals live among us seem remarkably plausible.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B