The Old Guard movie review: Charlize Theron's Netflix film about ageless warriors gets old real fast
The Old Guard fails to capture the appeal the comic had for readers to the uninitiated viewers.
castCharlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Matthias Schoenaerts
With Marvel's Black Widow and DC's Wonder Woman 1984 delayed, Netflix brings The Old Guard, a new superhero film to fill the blockbuster void left by closed theatres this summer. While seeing the spectacle may impress some, seeing through it, they may find it curiously empty. Adapted from the comic book series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández, The Old Guard features Charlize Theron as Andy, a millennias-old warrior who leads a quartet of immortal mercenaries.
Andy is short for Andromache of Scythia, but the film glosses over her Scythian origins and Amazon warrior queen past. What little backstory we get is this: the death of her first immortal companion, which reveals their immortality is more quasi than absolute; the sadistic confinement of her second companion after being accused of witchcraft, which serves as a hook for a potential sequel; and her brief love affair with Auguste Rodin, namedropped as a joke. Her brothers-in-arms include Crusades rivals-turned lovers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Napoleonic War veteran Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts). If this were a Bill & Ted film, these interesting backstories could have been used to take the viewer on excellent adventures through history. But this is not that kind of a movie.
Sporting short hair and dark clothes, Andy is a superhero tormented by the tragedy of living forever and watching loved ones die, one by one. Even though they have been alive for centuries, the Old Guard have still not figured out why they have been chosen and their roles throughout history. Accustomed to suicide missions, they have been covertly protecting humanity from self-destruction, without being discovered — until their identities are discovered by an ex-CIA agent named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), hired by a corporation that aims to market eternal life to the masses. The bad guys personify Big Pharma and all the ambitious billionaires with messiah complex. The Old Guard are pitted against Merrick (Harry Melling), head of a pharmaceutical company trying to use his unfettered power to do as he pleases, hiding under the excuse of scientific advancement and the good of humanity.
Serving as the audience surrogate in the film is Nile (Kiki Layne), a US Marine killed in action in Afghanistan only to wake up to immortality. Going through the usual stages of disbelief to eventual acceptance, her initiation provides necessary exposition to establish the Old Guard's battle-weary bonafides. She introduces a sense of renewed optimism that counters the nihilism that has crept into their judgment of humanity. Even Theron cannot make us warm up to a character designed to be a little cold. So Nile becomes the emotional glue that binds us to the plot.
The Old Guard is most compelling when its story focuses on Andy and Nile, who gain narrative texture with each conversation.
For director Gina Prince-Bythewood, it is not just about representation in a genre formerly devoted to men. Sure, the movie passes the Bechdel and Vito Russo Tests. But she wants to do more than just correct some statistical parity.
She empowers Andy and Nile, and Joe and Nicky, with the same agency and dimensionality that are granted to their straight male counterparts.
The combat sequences are filmed with thrilling immediacy, like John Wick-lite battles that rack up a sizeable body count by the end. With immortals as heroes, you however might not get the same level of tension you do with mortals (not Keanu Reeves) aware of the fatal consequences of living every moment in danger. While their age and ever-healing bodies might hide the physical toil of every injury sustained over centuries of killing, the psychological toll is plainly visible.
The tragedy of living forever carries with it the immortality of all things: war, disease, poverty, death, and the endless losses that the Old Guard have had to face since time immemorial. So nihilism manifests itself as a loss of idealism and disillusionment with humanity, symptoms that arise from a loss of time's meaning. This explains their cynicism and feeling of nothingness even as they dish out violence. The endless cycle of violence repeats itself, and they are forced to re-watch humanity doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
The Old Guard highlights the dilemma with fidelity being considered a merit in adaptations. The key challenge is to transpose the appeal of the source material faithfully on screen, without delivering a mere cinematic facsimile. This was the issue with Zack Snyder's Watchmen. By contrast, in the recent HBO adaptation, Damon Lindelof consciously updated the graphic novel, re-embodying it as a contemporary cinematic work that was as creative and daring as the source material. Though The Old Guard does not favour one audience over the other, it still fails to capture the appeal the comic book had for readers to the uninitiated viewers. What it does succeed in doing is bring an alt-superhero film as a substitute to the usual Marvel and DC fare. Of course, it is more a fresh symptom than a solution to superhero saturation. For if you stick around for the credits, you will know Netflix is planning a whole new franchise.
The Old Guard is now streaming on Netflix.
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