There’s a Whole Lot of Butt-Kicking and a Whole Lot of Heart in Netflix’s Comic Book Adaptation.
DIRECTED BY GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD / 2020
STREAMING ON NETFLIX
Here we are, halfway through 2020 and any hope for a normal summer blockbuster season is gone. My calendar is filled with broken release dates for major action films that were supposed to have come out but have been pushed back due to the ongoing pandemic. Netflix, however, is not constrained by the theater-going experience. We have been temporarily denied Black Widow, No Time to Die, Mulan, and Tenet, but the popular streaming service has bequeathed to us The Old Guard, an action film about immortal warriors based on a comic series by Greg Rucka. It’s everything you could want in a summer movie, and more. It delivers its action along with a good portion of heart. There’s a warm emotional core at the center of this movie wherein Charlize Theron kills bad people with an axe.
Theron plays Andy, neé Andromache the Stygian, a warrior who’s been alive so long, she cannot even remember how old she actually is. She leads a team of three other immortals like herself: Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Joe (Marwan Kenzari). For centuries, the team has been fighting the good fight, but Andy has grown tired. She can no longer see how they are making the world any better. In many ways, it’s getting worse. Booker has arranged for them to meet with Copley (the always great Chiwetel Ejiofor), a CIA agent who has a job for them.
There are a pair of complications, of course. One is in the person of Merrick (Harry Melling), a young CEO of a giant pharmaceutical company. He wants to capture the four immortals to experiment on them. He wishes to unlock the secret of their power in order to package it in a pill and sell it. If this means the warriors are subject to decades of torture in meantime, well so be it. The other wrinkle is much more benign. She’s Nile Freeman, played by Kiki Layne. Nile is a young soldier serving in Afghanistan, and she’s a newly discovered immortal- the first to arise in over 200 years. Andy makes contact with her and helps Nile come to grips with the fact that she cannot die.
As befits a story concerning four highly-trained fighters who have lived for centuries, the action sequences in The Old Guard are first rate. Fast and brutal, but always clear and containing clever choreography. Her roles in Mad Max and Atomic Blonde have left no doubt that Theron is capable of delivering the action goods, but her co-stars are more than able to keep up with her, especially Layne, who has a chance to go toe to toe with Theron as they brawl in the back of a cargo plane.
But it’s just as important for an action film to deliver a satisfying emotional experience as it is the visceral action beats. All of the best, most fondly remembered action movies do- and The Old Guard is no exception in that regard. The relationships between the four teammates, especially the love between the once-enemies-now-lovers Nicky and Joe, who met in combat during the crusades and are now devoted heart, body, and soul to one another. Joe is given a (rightly lauded) speech, taken verbatim from the graphic novel, where he declares that Nicky is not merely a ‘boyfriend,’ “I love this man beyond measure and reason,” Joe declares, “He’s not my boyfriend! He’s all and he’s more.”
And it’s that level of unironic emotionalism that sets The Old Guard apart. As much as I love the films of the MCU (for example), they have a tendency to eschew deep feelings in favor of flippant humor. Maybe Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 soured the well in this regard, as so many thought that Peter Parker’s emotional hurt was “corny.” The Old Guard is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood who’s best known as the writer and director of character-driven romantic dramas such as Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. She brings the same level of energy and commitment to two men declaring their eternal love for one another as she does a sequence where Theron mows down dozens of armed and armored goons.
If the movie makes any mis-step, it’s that it spends almost too much time devoted to setting up its sequel, which may or may not come. Netflix hasn’t yet made too many sequels to movies in its vast catalog of original releases. That’s not to say we won’t get one (The Old Guard was reportedly the most-watched item on Netflix its opening weekend), and I’ll be thrilled when it finally drops. Leaving all of that setup and backstory out, however, would have made for a leaner, tighter film- another very important trait for an action film.
But that’s a comparatively minor issue compared to the richness of the movie as a whole. The Old Guard delivers on its action-packed comic book premise in ways both expected and surprising. Even if a pandemic hadn’t removed most of its competition from theaters this summer, The Old Guard should live a very long time in the minds of its fans.