Life essentially boils down to the decisions we make with the best information we possess at the time. Good, bad, it all culminates in the ultimate and universal intel: We all die someday. So we mostly endeavor toward a meaningful metier — to families, communities, friends, ourselves — hoping that at the end, we can reflect on the choices made and find it a life well lived.
For its titular cadre of immortal mercenaries, The Old Guard examines the existential vacuum when death is off the table. With or without the aid of awesome Queen power ballads, plenty of genre films have depicted the corporeal drawbacks of living forever. Expertly adapted by Greg Rucka from his own graphic novel and vivaciously directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights), this one concerns itself with the centurial collateral damage of disappointment — to somehow speak every language but feel communion with none, to question if the side you chose was right, to wonder whether the life you saved was in vain, to lose loved ones to time’s ravages and a savage anger that cannot understand how you couldn’t share this gift with them.
Premiering Friday on Netflix, The Old Guard is an uncommonly soulful and somber-minded superhero movie, one that spans the Kübler-Ross continuum of grief. But it also counters the weary with plenty of wry. There’s also the rollicking respite from real-world rot that comes from watching Charlize Theron bury her battle axe in a bunch of bad guys’ bodies. Even when its fantastical frosting gets a tad gloopy, The Old Guard forgoes cumbersome mythological exposition for more personal baggage believably slumped across its superheroes’ shoulders.
We meet those heroes on a warehouse floor, bullet-riddled and dead for at least a few seconds before their bodies expel the shells and we learn who they are and how they got there. Andy (Theron) is the eldest of the group, around for an untold period of time. She battles alongside Joe (Aladdin’s Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), rivals in the Crusades who became lifelong soulmates, and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s been around since the War of 1812. Are they good guys? Bad guys? Depends on the century, Joe quips. But their rule is to never work for the same people twice lest their cover be blown. That is until an appeal from CIA agent turned freelance operator Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor of Doctor Strange) to save some South Sudanese girls taken hostage. It’s too good to pass up, even for Andy — who wonders whether it’s time to tie off the group’s increasingly tenuous connection and let the world burn.
Alas, it’s just a trap overseen by psychopathic pharmaceutical CEO Merrick (Harry Melling of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), who’s eager to extract their DNA and crack the code of immortality. (This summer of all summers, altruism as an artifice for atrocity resonates rather well.) After narrowly escaping the villains’ clutches, these mercs are ready to call it a millennium. But shared visions reveal a fifth about to join their ranks and they feel obligated to press on.
Nile (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Kiki Layne) doesn’t know she’s destined for indefinite immortality. She’s just stuck in a fruitless forever war in Afghanistan, where her fellow female soldiers’ decision to thirst for glory rather than secure a scene leaves Nile bleeding out on the floor. Prince-Bythewood even finds understandable through-line for that poor choice, likely rooted in a sexist sense of military inferiority. Between this and Da 5 Bloods, Netflix is home to two of summer 2020’s finest and most memorable offerings — Black filmmakers using genre trappings to tell tales rooted in the righteous rebellion of right now.
After Nile survives without even a “trophy” scar, her friends ostracize her. No sooner has Nile nervously retreated into Frank Ocean on her earbuds than Andy shows up to bring her into the fold (but not before a knife to the shoulder with a profane exclamation akin to a stubbed toe).
Rucka has seen others wreak havoc on his work before — see, or really don’t see Whiteout — so he takes respectful care in adapting his source material. Yeah, The Old Guard gives us a mostly superfluous squabble between master and protege but also lets us see the sustenance it gives to Andy’s dwindling morale. Sunken, sallow and stripped of all sexiness, Theron makes Andy a worthwhile addition to her action-hero gallery alongside her work in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road (the latter getting a brief, amusing visual shoutout). Theron also continues to embrace fight choreography that feels not only laser-focused on the realities of her physique but a distinctly female body language of rage.
The Old Guard’s hard lefts might feel more familiar to genre fans, but they play like explorations of its character’s psyches and not mere parlor-trick plot contortions. We’re spared training montages; after all, Nile’s only new rule is that life as she knows it will continue … and continue some more. Layne contributes strong character work as a woman who tethered her life to a legacy inextricable from mortality and morality and now must wrestle with how to carry on when the letters “im” alter the definition of those notions. The empathy you’ll feel during what would be a lesser film’s “shocker” twist is especially strong.
Rucka’s script has no room for empty-gesture martyrdom, not when there are regular reminders of how much of these immortals’ lives have been spent in chains, man-made or metaphorical. He also writes for Kenzari a full-throated and full-hearted declaration of Joe’s love for Nicky that is the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard, or might ever hear, in superhero cinema. Andy’s mantra of “whatever it takes” reflects weighted uncertainty instead of fist-pump oorah. And it’s not pointlessly overloaded with action, making its climactic clash exceptionally exciting and engaging.
A summertime standout even if our options weren’t limited, The Old Guard is a thrilling, moving story about immortality — one that understands the strain of emotional comorbidity, illustrates how kindness and conscientious choices truly reverberate, and, it bears repeating, features Charlize Theron burying battle axes in people.