The Old Guard
A unique and competently explored concept
The concept of immortality is one that human beings have been exploring and pondering since our first consciousness. It has been infused in religion, science, and, of course, the arts. The idea of never dying is one that opens up such creative possibilities; it is no doubt an extremely meaty concept to grapple with on film. Such is the case with The Old Guard (2020) a new Netflix film adapted from a set of comic books.
The Old Guard is the story of a small group of immortal mercenaries, led by a thousand-year old Andy (Charlize Theron). This “old guard” go around supporting causes they believe to be just through history, and they discover the first new member of their immortal club in 200 years, in US Marine Nile (Kiki Lane). However, having discovered the immortal secret the pharmaceutical CEO Merrick (Harry Melling) wants to harvest the warriors’ bodies in order to produce life-saving treatments.
The concept of the story, whose merit should go to the comics, is an interesting one at best. It melds a sense of history with the vigilantism of superhero stories. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood brings up logical questions and pushes the creative concept to its limits. Do people become dehumanized after seeing so much war and destruction? Does the insane confidence given by immortality change one’s perspective on self-valuation? Does immortality allow one to bypass laws and morality? I was pleasantly surprised that the idea of immortal mercenaries wasn’t exploited to just be a series of lightly stringed action sequences, but rather a surface level existentialism is explored instead. Of course, I would have much rather seen immortality explored with such gifted beings using their endless time to gather intellect and analysis in order to help solve problems on a macro-level instead of with bullets and swords. But then again, that film wouldn’t be as entertaining as The Old Guard.
The action sequences are competently choreographed, with Prince-Bythewood not shying away from holding her takes too long. The enjoyment in such sequences is furthered by the fact that one sees most of the principal cast perform their own stunts, leading to a more fluid editing of action. Theron, has proven to be quite the action star recently, building up an impressive resumé with Atomic Blonde (2017), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the Fast & Furious films. Theron is able to infuse enough coolness to her character and even add a veil of mysterious trauma, so that her lead proves to be a magnetic one. The rest of the cast were rather inexperienced in action movies, and yet they seemed to pull their scenes off convincingly. Kiki Lane was especially pleasing as the viewers’ advocate into the film’s universe. Lane was able to embody the sense of being a normal person so that viewers themselves could project onto her and relate to the introduction of the film’s concepts.
There were much more quiet and character-building moments than I expected, and the refreshing way with which Prince-Blythewood probes the immortality concept carries the viewers’ attention for a large portion of the runtime. It was only in the final act that I felt the originality of The Old Guard give way. It was in these moments that the film turned into a more typical action blockbuster with its sneering corporate villain (a competent Melling) and his countless henchmen. As the film ends, a set up for a sequel is sloppily inserted, which only seemed to further water down the novelty of The Old Guard as it turned into a copycat of a franchise business model.
In the end, The Old Guard proves to bring about a refreshing concept with an adequate spin and execution. The film’s stars prove to be convincing enough both in action and character moments. However, it is the film’s underlying plot, villain, and finale that seem to drag down the uniqueness, to become a cookie-cutter blockbuster.