Decades ago a movie featuring people with some form of superpowers would have been slotted into the ‘fantasy’ genre. Thanks to the goliath success of Marvel movies and comic book heroes it's arguably much harder for around the edges efforts to get their heads above the parapet. But, from director Gina Prince-Byethewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond The Lights, Love and Basketball) and starring Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Netflix have quietly thrown a curveball with The Old Guard.
The Old Guard opens with a flashforward in the tried and tested movie technique: showing a snippet of the end of Act 2 for dramatic effect. Andy (Theron) and three other mercenaries are ruthlessly mown down with automatic weapons. So when we cut to these characters alive in Marrakesh some time earlier there is clearly some tension whilst we await their impending doom. Which makes it all the more surprising when the slaughter actually happens at the end of Act 1 only for our gang to drag themselves off the ground, spit out the bullets, and return the violence tenfold.
We learn that immortals roam the world. Once in a while, someone will simply not die but instead mysteriously heal. In the universe of The Old Guard, such confused people are drawn together by visions that only cease when they meet. Of our gang, constant drinker Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) has lived since the French Revolution, Joe and Nicky (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) repeatedly killed each other in the Crusades before becoming lovers, and Andy is older even than that.
Calling The Old Guard a superhero movie is somewhat disingenuous: an indicator of the modern monopoly of the aforementioned Marvel machine. A better comparison would be movies such as Highlander. Certainly, the action is thrilling. As in Fury Road, Theron once again proves that she has the strength of will to carry a high energy fighting lead character whilst also delivering nuance and depth. Her excellently choreographed battles slice, dice, and shoot her way through missions but the weight of her unspecified age hangs heavy. The gang have been fighting all these years to try and make the world a better place but Andy has become jaded, unable to see anything other than a world going to hell.
Despite the immortality factor there is no high fantasy here. War-torn Afghanistan is a major backdrop that also introduces us to the newest immortal. In a routine operation, soldier Nile (Kiki Layne) shoots an attacker but as the man lays dying he manages to slash her throat. Although blood pours from her at first, her platoon view Nile with suspicion when she eventually sits up without any scar. Shortly after Andy picks her up we are treated to some great scenes. Andy’s weary duty is tested by Nile’s struggles to come to terms with what has happened and culminates is a wonderfully thrilling fight scene in the tight space of a drug smuggling airplane.
The Old Guard treats the prospect of immortality with commendable maturity. As hard-hitting as the action scenes are, they are sparsely spaced out between many long and brooding segments where the group contemplate their fate. The thing they fear most is being captured, because torture can be inflicted on them forever. It is a testament to the efforts of Prince-Byethewood and the cast that once the rather predictably Big Pharma tycoon locks our characters in a lab to be experimented on indefinitely, we do worry for their fates.
Also commendable is that the same-sex relationship between Joe and Nicky is neither token nor clumsy. A captor sneers, “Is he your boyfriend?” when they are jostled in the back of a van, but the answer rises above soundbite sass to become one of the most earnest and honest declarations of love you will hear in any action-centric movie, homosexual or not.
Written by Greg Rucka and based on the comic book of the same name, The Old Guard is a thoroughly enjoyable, if somewhat earnest, movie. Notwithstanding a few convenient plot elements (apparently one day the immortality just unpredictably ends so any death could be the last) there is lots of edge of the seat stuff but plenty of heft to elevate it beyond pure carnage. I could watch Theron swing her huge ancient axe all day, and with hints of The Old Guard being treated as a franchise starter then I say to Netflix: get on with it. Chop chop.
Words by Mike Record