For the first time in this summer of the plague year 2020, I’m not sorry to be missing all the big loud comic-book movies we’re being bombarded with in the non-pandemic alt-timeline. I like those movies — love them, mostly, even when they’re also exhausting — but they do tend to dominate the pop-culture conversation. With them off the radar this year, there’s room to breathe for a fantastic little pulp comic-book movie like The Old Guard, debuting on Netflix on Friday.
In fact, if we are ready to reconsider the superhero tentpole dynamic, flurries of explosive movies across different franchises all vying for our attention with their ever-expanding carnivals of spectacle, The Old Guard offers a blueprint: Get smaller. Give us metahumans, yes, but with more emphasis on the human than the meta. The immortal protagonists of The Old Guard are much more engaging and empathetic as people than comic-book stories onscreen often manage. The question “What would it be like to live forever?” has been asked plenty often before, but it’s baked into the story and the characters here in a way that feels as deeply authentic as such a fantastical premise can be. There’s nothing romantic — in any sense of the word — about never dying for this crew. It’s a lot of pain and loss and rage.
Here’s (partly) why: Andy (Charlize Theron: Long Shot, Gringo) — whose full name may be one classicists would recognize from history — has just about had it with the self-imposed mission of the small group of fellow immortals she leads in helping humanity as much as they can. Because, as she replies when one of them tries to cheer her up with “We can do some good”: “Have you seen the news lately? ‘Some good’ does nothing.” You think you’re full of despair about the state of the world? (And by “you,” I mean me.) Imagine having actually witnessed it getting to this state in spite of your actions to prevent it. Theron brings the badass here like she has in plenty of other popcorn movies of late — Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde — but it’s how she carries the weight of Andy’s anger, the weight of history, that sells this brilliant flick. Andy is tired.
Character is so much more important to The Old Guard than plot. More intriguing, too. The slow reveals of the relationships among Andy’s team are a treat to witness, and much of it comes gently, as new baby immortal Nile (KiKi Layne: If Beale Street Could Talk) is introduced to Andy, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts: Red Sparrow, The Danish Girl), Joe (Marwan Kenzari: Aladdin, Murder on the Orient Express), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli: The Great Beauty)… the latter two of whom are a couple, their devotion to each other barely sketched yet palpable. One scene in particular, in which Joe explains what Nicky means to him, is a pump-a-fist-in-the-air triumph for gay representation onscreen. (That’s one bit I’d have liked to see with a big rowdy, and, obviously, accepting crowd.) Huge kudos to screenwriter Greg Rucka (Whiteout), adapting his own graphic novel, for this and other moments of really juicy dialogue — not snarky catchphrases but smart, emotionally self-aware conversation — that make The Old Guard such a joy.
This is a comic-book movie, and there’s plenty of bruising action to be found here, as Andy’s squad takes on yet another do-gooder mercenary job via CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Sherlock Gnomes), which goes bad and leads to further Complications. But just as she did with her last film, 2014’s pop-music romance Beyond the Lights (too long ago!), director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees) elevates a familiar genre by immersing us in genuine, unsentimental feeling even as she embraces the tropes. I especially love the dynamic between Andy and Nile, a rare mentor-mentee relationship featuring two women. Rucka’s script creates that, but Prince-Bythewood lets the wonderful chemistry between Theron and Layne do the work. Both actors underplay it, avoiding the cheese there was so much potential for, and finding an empathy that is hard won and eventually a friendship that feels solid among the fisticuffs and firefights.
There’s a sense here, too, that the world of these characters is so much larger than we see… which should be a given, of course, with the scope of their existences, but was by no means guaranteed. Andy and her team clearly have lives of their own, don’t spend all their time together — what else do they get up to? There are hints that there are larger supernatural forces at work arranging events for some purpose that even Andy, with her vast vision and insight, cannot see. There is mystery here — it reminded me a little of the unearthliness of, unexpectedly, Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive, if with a faster pace. This is a world I cannot wait to return to. And with the suggestion that there’s plenty more story to come, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a return visit is in the cards.
The Old Guard is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for July 10th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.