Dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood; Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
While I admit it is futile to expect normalcy during 2020, there was still something surprising about the discovery that Gina Prince-Bythewood, a director known for small-scale dramas such as Love and Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights (2014), was directing an action tentpole for Netflix. When I think of Prince-Bythewood, images of intimate conversations about love, purpose, and connection are the first that float to mind. I have never once associated blood spatter and tactical weapons with her, but after seeing The Old Guard (2020) I will now. Prince-Bythewood’s eye for character drama is evident in a film genre that does not always take the time to include those beats. The result is a film split down the middle between tired genre tropes and truly stirring character study, all the while featuring a number of truly superb fight sequences.
The Old Guard, adapted from the comic book series of the same name by Leandro Fernández and Greg Rucka, focuses on a team of immortal warriors who have been fighting to protect the innocent and needy of the world for centuries. The team consists of Frenchman Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), former Knights of the Crusade and current lovers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and their Ancient Greek leader Andromeda “Andy” of Scythia (Charlize Theron). After they take a job for retired CIA officer Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that turns into a set-up, they go on the run and discover that a new immortal, the first in centuries, is out there. She happens to be a U.S. Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne) who survived having her throat slashed and is very confused about her newfound immortality. After Andy tracks her down to bring her into the team, the group attempts to take down Copley and his superiors before they succeed in capturing any of the team and experimenting on them to try and replicate their immortality. This is the goal of archvillain Merrick (Henry Melling), an utterly forgettable corporate baddie right out of Robocop (1987) or Total Recall (1990).
The “immortal beings dealing with their immortality” is, at this point, a well-traveled sub-genre of filmmaking. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), though I’m sure not the first to do it on film, is a decent place to begin when attempting to consider how long storytellers, both on page and screen, have turned to this trope in some form or another. For more contemporary examples, anything from Highlander (1986) and Interview with the Vampire (1994) to The Age of Adaline (2015) will do the trick. While the plots of all these movies may vary wildly, the genes they share with each other as well as The Old Guard boil down to how they deploy the excruciating loneliness of immortality to develop their characters. Every one of these movies features at least one speech, and usually more, about how hard it is to watch loved ones die as you carry on. At face value, that is a poignant idea, but after decades of hearing roughly the same speech, it has lost its luster, and The Old Guard suffers from that. I found myself unconvinced by multiple speeches of the kind, even when the acting and writing was perfectly well-executed. Booker delivers one such speech to Nile about his son dying of cancer while believing that his father was selfishly keeping the gift of immortality from him in his hour of need. Schoenaerts delivers it with verve, and Layne plays the response to perfection. Yet, I was unmoved. It may not be a direct fault of the film, but its continuation of what has become a clichéd part of the sub-genre takes the air out of too many scenes that need to work for the film to fully succeed.
Thankfully though, the film’s use of immortality is not an entire loss. The emotional beats that focus on the relationships between the immortal figures are what separate this movie from any number of sub-genre counterparts, or the broader scope of action films. This is also where I see Prince-Bythewood’s auteurist fingerprints most clearly. Theron, Marinelli, Kenzari, and Schoenaerts embody each of their characters with a sense of familial understanding that is entirely convincing. You see them sitting, talking, and fighting together, and you believe that they have been doing so for centuries. The first time they are all together in the film, they have reunited after a year apart, and Nikky gives Andy a slice of baklava. She proceeds to eat it and note every ingredient in it as her teammates watch, waiting for her to miss a part of the recipe. She doesn’t, and their amazement by way of frustration at her continued excellence nods back to a history of them testing her baklava knowledge again and again (they don’t ever specify why baklava, but it seems to be a nod to her Ancient Greek heritage). It is a sweet moment of friendship, and each performer contributes note-perfect performance beats. Elsewhere, the romance between Nicky and Joe is truly delightful. I was admittedly worried theirs would be another window-dressing queer romance in a blockbuster as has been de riguer as of late, quite destressingly so in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Instead a central part of the narrative from start to finish. We see them cuddling together, flirting, and then taking out an entire van of heavily armed guards together. I wanted more, not because there wasn’t enough, because they were so damn engaging. It is here that Prince-Bythewood seems to understand the strengths of each of her performers, and so allows each of them to shine in their performance while also contributing vital emotional development. It is, if you’ll indulge me, her superpower.
Such poignant character drama and pathos is most present in the dynamic that develops between Nile and Andy. Andy is the one that goes and recruits Nile, and by recruits, I mean kidnaps her and then shoots her in the head when she tries to run so as to make sure she doesn’t leave as well as prove to her she is immortal. Their relationship is the classic begrudging older mentor and rebellious upstart that is as old as the immortality tropes I wrote of before, but Layne and Theron rise above it. Their chemistry is superb, both when they are arguing as well as when Theron is playing the tough-love mother. Prince-Bythewood also gives them the best scenes, which is especially true of a one-on-one fight they have in a plane when Nile wants to leave and Andy has no intention of letting her do so. Prince-Bythewood stages it flawlessly, moving her camera in ways that underscore both actresses’ balletic brutality, and plays the moment both for adrenalizing action as well as deadpan humor on behalf of Theron who is needling her newest pupil. Watching these two come to trust and even rely on each other is its greatest joy. That and seeing Theron continue her reign as the action hero of a generation, which started back in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and should now be an undisputed fact. If you don’t believe me, rewatch the church fight scene and that should settle any misconception on your part.
The shame in all of this is that the plot of The Old Guard never rises to meet the talent and commitment of its cast and director, who nonetheless succeed in making the film a promising dose of flawed originality. As far as Netflix action tentpoles go, The Old Guard stands far above recent efforts like Michael Bay’s 6 Underground (2019) and Sam Hargrave’s Extraction (2020) that offer little beyond hackneyed teambuilding and the occasional moment of impressive action. The Old Guard suggests that somewhere in the bowels of the Netflix corporate offices, someone has an eye on giving the green light to more interesting filmmakers still trying to develop their cinematic voices. I will happily watch the sequel that is no doubt coming at some point, but I hope that it features a more engaging narrative so that it feels less like a film that succeeds in spite of itself, as this one seems to, and more like one that is built to go the distance. Prince-Bythewood is an indisputable talent, and while I selfishly hope she returns to the smaller independent fare I crave from her, the action genre would be lucky to have such a fascinating artist continue to push against the tropes and clichés we should have retired decades ago.