One major problem with modern superhero films is a distinct lack of tension. Whether it’s super strength, supernatural powers, or the super useful ability to evade death altogether, we know that, regardless of the danger present, our onscreen heroes are unlikely to kick the bucket.
Enter Netflix’s The Old Guard, which would seem to suffer from a similar problem. It focuses on a centuries-old group of immortals who, regardless of damage, can heal, get back up, and carry on fighting the good fight. Much like Deadpool and Wolverine (and making the most of its R rating), bones snap back into place, necks untwist, and bullets pop out of gaping, bloody wounds. But this adaptation of Greg Rucka and Leando Fernández’s comic book series isn’t business as usual. The themes are similar and the concepts well-trodden, but Charlize Theron’s powerful performance as main immortal Andy and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s confident direction transforms The Old Guard (★★★★☆) into something much greater than the sum of its familiar parts.
Andy forms an immortal foursome alongside Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), who hire themselves out to those in need — whether it’s typical “good guy” missions or mingling with less savory sorts in order to fund their extra-extended existence. Their tightly choreographed operation quickly falls into ruin after Merrick (Harry Melling), a billionaire pharmaceutical CEO, hires ex-CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to help capture the group, exploiting their powers to sell immortality for profit. Further complicating matters is the appearance of Nile (KiKi Layne), a young Marine who discovers her own immortality while deployed in Afghanistan.
From here, the plot is incredibly familiar to anyone who has sat through a recent Marvel or DC effort, as well as countless other action thrillers. Nile joins the team, gets a crash course in immortal life, there’s lots of fighting, a big twist throws the team into disarray, and then they regroup and head into a final battle to prevent some world-altering outcome. Nothing here is truly groundbreaking, but it doesn’t really matter.
Ultimately, The Old Guard is a good film, and that’s largely thanks to some strong performances, particularly from Theron and Layne, and to a plot that might span millennia but remains appropriately contained, with only minimal use of flashback to establish its scale. Keeping tight control of everything is Prince-Bythewood, who carefully leads the audience through a series of impressively structured set pieces — whether it’s Andy slaughtering a private army in a church, the team storming a skyscraper penthouse, or a sharply captured fight on an airplane between Andy and Nile. There’s bullets, swords, and blood aplenty, but Prince-Bythewood ensures nothing is ever lost in the mass of bodies, keeping the action clear and tightly staged.
Between fights, things get surprisingly philosophical, with the film happy to debate the merits of life, the increasing lethality of humanity, and the loss that comes with eternal living. Rucka adapted his own comic for the script, and while some lighter moments wouldn’t have gone amiss, he gets appropriately bleak at times — particularly in the flashback tale of one immortal who learned to horrific effect the downside of never being able to die. There’s also a prominent same-sex relationship — introduced nonchalantly with Joe and Nicky spooning while sleeping on a train — that later offers a passionate rebuttal to the “weak men are gay” jokes that perpetuate the action genre.
As for the immortality problem, that perhaps is where The Old Guard truly manages to stand out. As it transpires, death will eventually come for us all, allowing a conclusion with genuine tension for a superhero film — even if the genre’s blatant franchise-building is unashamedly evident.
The Old Guard starts streaming Friday, July 10 on Netflix.
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