The list of films that deserve a theatrical release grows longer the further into 2020 quarantine goes. April brought the kinetic and pulse-pounding Extraction; May offered up the colorful escapism of The High Note and comedic hijinks of The Lovebirds; while June gave us the hallucinogenic Shirley and the heartbreaking Da 5 Bloods. Four of these were intended to hit theaters, not VOD or streaming services, and, quite frankly, are less enjoyable than they could be as a result. The latest film to join the bittersweet pleasure of home viewing is director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (Love & Basketball) new Netflix Original The Old Guard. Though The Old Guard wasn’t scheduled to hit theaters like some other Netflix films have in the past, The Old Guard is exactly the kind of popcorn-munching, crowd-pleasing, ass-kicking, surprisingly emotional summertime flick that audiences would’ve devoured at the cineplex. Based on the Image Comics series by co-creators Greg Rucka (Wonder Woman: Bloodlines) and Leandro Fernandez from a screenplay adapted by Rucka, The Old Guard offers a predictable narrative that’s entirely offset by strong character arcs, a cast with fantastic chemistry, and stunts that’ll make you shout.
In the fringes of humanity exists a small group of warriors that do the jobs most are incapable of doing. It’s not just that they’re exceptionally trained (they are) or part of a large force (they are not), but because they are immortal. Comprised of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), a former Napoleonic era soldier; Joe and Nicky (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli), of the Crusades; and their leader Andy (Charlize Theron); the culturally diverse quartet takes jobs where they feel they can do the most good, even if history doesn’t always see it that way. After a job goes sideways and their cover gets blown, the four seek to prevent their secret from going global. To make matters worse, they psychically sense that a new immortal has manifested, a marine stationed in Afghanistan named Nile (KiKi Layne). Without anyone to protect her, Nile stands to bring greater trouble on the heads of the team, requiring them to split their focus on two fronts. Can they protect themselves from the public and bring in a new recruit at the same time? Only time will tell.
The Old Guard doesn’t do anything that audiences haven’t necessarily seen before, but what it does do is done well. The opening, for instance, seems to utilize the trope of a scene showing the principles in trouble leading to a flash-back. It’s the kind of thing that some abhorred about Extinction, another Netflix Original, but is used brilliantly here. It not only sets the stage for the kinds of violence the team can endure, but the audience catches up to that moment so quickly that it becomes a signal that the unexpected is coming. As far as the narrative itself, it’s been seen so many times across mediums that you’ll call it the moment The Old Guard suggests a mystery. Instead, where the narrative injects originality is by making the seemingly invulnerable warriors far more philosophical in nature than hungry for battle. In fact, the more information the audience receives, the more taxed and afflicted Andy and her team become. One would presume that someone who has watched civilizations rise and fall would begin to see humanity as significant as a gnat, when it’s the opposite. They understand, perhaps greater than anyone, that an endless life requires greater responsibility and, with it, the burden of bearing their failures. Though not explicitly explained, the subtext of Rucka’s script alludes to the fact that these warriors only kill when absolutely necessary. Taking lives bears a heavy price for them, so to enact more violence than required on any mission, in any engagement, is something they feel and rarely forget. This gives much of The Old Guard its pathos, which the film takes its time exploring throughout the runtime without diminishing what most audiences come for: exquisite bloodshed.
In between the dialogue are several fight sequences, each with their own moments to incite an “oh, shit” or two. Coordinated by Brycen Counts (Black Panther) and Adam Kirley (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), each fight is more than just which member of the team can get hurt the worst before they heal and kill their assailants. They may heal, but it still hurts, so each fight is designed for them to deliver maximum punishment while taking minimal damage, just like it would be for any well-trained unit. Thankfully, the stunt sequences aren’t just about how brutally someone is killed, it’s that Prince-Bythewood gives the audience room to actually see what’s happening via longer takes or edits to shift perspective while maintaining focus on the cast. When we see Andy swing her ancient axe, we can tell it’s Theron. When Joe delivers a particularly ferocious, and absolutely justified, inverted body slam, the fact that it’s clearly Kenzari makes it more incredible. Even Layne, whom most audiences may know from the under-appreciated If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), will drop their jaws in disbelief as she goes toe-to-toe with Theron in an early and expected tussle for social positioning. This specific fight is one of the narrative bits audiences will expect as Rucka uses Andy as the wizened reluctant mentor and Nile as the unwitting newbie, but the way the fight is structured communicates what the audience needs to know about the respective characters, serving to move the larger notions of The Old Guard forward while introducing the audience to what Nile is capable of.
Building off of the idea that violence is not to be celebrated, two strong character sequences focus on both Andy and Nile individually and each one is given a song behind them to set the tone. For Andy, it’s Ruelle’s “The World We Made” and for Nile, it’s Andrea Wasse x Phlotilla’s “Going Down Fighting.” Each song possess lyrics evocative of a warrior’s way, a desire to keep fighting, yet the overall tenor of each song is somber. The songs do not celebrate violence in any form and create a wonderful contrast against the violence each character takes part in, speaking to the internal desire to walk away from a life overflowing with blood. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that fantastic SFX work from Special Effects Supervisor Hayley Williams (Annihilation) and Oscar-winning Visual Effects Supervisor Sara Bennett (Ex-Machina) for their work on both the wounds and the healing effects. The blending of make-up, prosthetics, and visual effects is overlaid seamlessly so that when wounds are made, the carnage of violence appears as real as possible.
When it’s all said and done, though, what makes The Old Guard truly engaging are the performances from the cast. There’re some fun moments from the supporting players like Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity) as a former CIA agent-turned-merc contractor, Harry Melling (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) as a Big Pharma bigwig in possession of zero morals, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Van Veronica Ngo (Da 5 Bloods) as the mysterious Quynh, but the real joy comes from the central cast. Schoenaerts, Kenzari, Marinelli, and Theron have perfect chemistry as an ensemble that makes it very easy to believe that these individuals not only stay together to survive, but that they also genuinely care for one another. Much of the emotional work falls on Theron’s shoulders, which she handles with the usual ease. That said, the surprise in the cast comes from Kenzari and Marinelli who create such a beautiful love story in a short time that a brief speech by Kenzari will have you clutching your heart while a physical engagement involving Marinelli may just stop it. Their performances make the audience so invested that you’ll find yourself rooting for this charming couple the entire film. As for Layne, give me more of her whooping ass with purpose, please. In fact, find her more work with Theron, another actor whose versatility just grows year after year.
At a time when audiences are either heading to the drive-in or are couch surfing, the battle for entertaining long-form content is growing more vicious by the day as shows and films brawl for attention. It may feel like audiences have more time to watch things, but all the extended period at home does is sharpen the sense as to whether entertainment is worth the time investment. Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is more than worth the time and, with luck, will be the first entry into a grander story; not that there needs to be an entire Old Guard universe, but the story ends in such a way that, for this writer, curiosity is certainly piqued. It’s not because the audience is left with more questions they need answered, Rucka’s script leaves plenty of satisfactory answers to the big questions in all the right places, it’s that this cast as these characters is so damned satisfying, I want to see more. If the need is large enough, something tells me The Old Guard will return again.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning July 10th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.