Review by Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions
The Old Guard is a 2020 Netflix release directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based on the comic by Greg Rucka and Leadro Fernandez. Our protagonists are a covert team of immortal beings. Andy (Charlize Theron) heads up the team which consists of three other immortals played by Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli. The newcomer to the team is Nile (Kiki Layne), a young marine serving in Afghanistan. She discovers her own immortality when an enemy insurgent cuts her throat. She later wakes up without so much as a scratch to her own bewilderment.
The team finds themselves in trouble when after centuries of living in secret, they walk into an ambush and discover they’ve been set up. They then find themselves going head to head with the evil Merrick Corporation, which seeks to learn the secret of their immortality to exploit it for profit. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the ex-CIA agent who is hired by the corporation to lure Theron and her team into a trap.
The Old Guard presents an interesting problem. How can you have tension in a story when none of your main characters can die? The film does its best to raise the stakes for our heroes by placing them in peril, but after seeing them riddled with bullets on more than one occasion only to rise shortly afterward, it becomes difficult to maintain an emotional investment in the characters.
That being said, overall the film is well-acted. Theron and Ejiofor stand out as the two who really rise above the material. The Oscar winning Theron has proven her acting chops time and time again as well as her ability to kick ass. In fact she’s so effective at killing one wonders why she needs a team behind her at all. During one action set piece, she single handedly takes out an entire squad of troops in an amazing display of badassery.
Ejiofor brings humanity and depth to his character that might have gone missing if portrayed by a lesser actor. He’s the film’s Lando Calrisian, forced to reconcile his inner conflict and cope when Merrick (the head of the evil pharmaceutical company played by Harry Melling) alters the deal. Ejiofor’s character arc doesn’t really get enough screen time, but because he’s so good, we buy it anyway.
The Old Guard spends much of its 125 minute runtime delving into the drama of the characters and world building with some key flashbacks and long conversations between Andy and Nile. Andy is the Obi Wan to newcomer Nile, explaining as best she can what it’s like to be an immortal warrior. There are also scenes with the team, giving them character building moments and showing how they relate to one another after having spent centuries together. On the surface this seems like a great direction for the film, and director Gina Prince-Bythewood handles both the drama and the action very well, but it feels as though the film takes itself far too seriously at times.
It’s basically The Highlander, but instead of immortals competing in a kill-or-be-killed competition for everlasting knowledge, they’re a team fighting for justice in an attempt to make the world better. It’s a very comic book concept, but whereas The Highlander is a fantasy/melodrama in which the plot drives the characters, this film attempts to be a straight action/drama where the characters drive the plot. On paper, that’s not a bad way to go about making a movie—especially when you have such a strong lead in Charlize Theron, but these character scenes tend to bog the film down. The premise of the film sounds fun: a team of unkillable badasses fight for justice around the world using guns and a variety of ancient weapons and meet their match when they come up against a corporate evil overlord who wants to capture them and steal the secret to their immortality. That sounds like the premise of a fun comic book action movie, but what we get is a drama about the pangs of immortality and what it can do to a person that also has some exciting action scenes which are some of the best parts of the film. It would have been great to have seen more of them.
There’s a disconnect in the execution of the film. The good guys are all sincere and playing it like it’s a war drama. They’re in Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, but the bad guys are mostly faceless soldiers in black with no real character development. Melling isn’t given much development at all as the movie’s big bad, other than, bad guy who does bad things for profit while under the guise of helping humanity. He’s basically a Bond villain, but less interesting.
Judging by the ending which I won’t spoil here, The Old Guard seems to be setting itself up for a sequel. We have an “ah ha!” moment, “so that’s why we watched all those flashbacks.” In this way the film suffers from the set-up-a-franchise-rather-than-just-make-a-good-movie syndrome a la Alita: Battle Angel. Considering the number of views the film received in its opening weekend, we’ll most likely get a sequel. One would hope now that they’ve gotten the world building out of the way, the next installment will give us more time in the present and hopefully more fun.