THE OLD GUARD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Stars: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzan, Kiki Layne, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejifor, Harry Melling.

Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, Luca Marinelli, Marwan Kenzari, and KiKi Layne in The Old Guard (2020)

An action flick about a group of centuries old immortal warriors, The Old Guard has been produced under the auspices of streaming giant Netflix and was set for a theatrical release until the pandemic closed cinemas. It has since become the most watched film on that firm’s streaming platform. 

Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron) is a centuries old immortal warrior who leads a team of immortal warriors who have been fighting for just causes from the earlier Crusades through to America’s Civil War and on through WWI. Known to her colleagues as Andy she has grown a little tired of the gore and the endless violence and witnessing man’s inhumanity and has taken a year’s sabbatical to consider her future. She is lured out of retirement when offered a job by Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, from 12 Years A Slave, etc), a former CIA agent.

She and her team are tasked with entering war torn Sudan and rescuing a group of children being held hostage by a warlord. But the mission turns out to be a trap, as Andy and her team are gunned down and killed. But then they quickly revive and kill their attackers. The whole exercise on captured on camera by Copley who is working with Merrick (Harry Melling, from the Harry Potter series, etc) the craven CEO of a pharmaceutical company trying to develop a cure for cancer. Merrick is immediately struck by the possibilities of these immortal warriors and charges Copley and a team of heavily armed mercenaries to capture them so he can harvest their DNA for its properties. But Andy and her team are not going to go down without a fight.

They get some help from of a new recruit in US marine Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne, from If Beale Street Could Talk, etc), the first new immortal to appear in centuries. While on a search mission in a hostile village somewhere in Afghanistan Nile was killed by a militant Taliban leader but recovered without a scratch. A strong psychic bond leads Andy to seek her out and recruit her. Nile is initially reluctant and sceptical but becomes a key member of the team, alongside Booker (Mathias Schoenaerts, from A Bigger Splash, etc), Joe (Marwan Kenzai, from Aladdin, etc) and Nick (Luca Marinelli, from The Great Beauty, etc). While learning about the team’s history she also helps them counter Merrick’s evil designs.

Based on the series of graphic novels written by Greg Rucka, known for the Wonder Woman, Lazarus and Stumptown comics, and illustrated by Argentinian artist Leandro Fernandez, The Old Guard owes a debt to 1986’s Highlander. This is quite a violent but ultimately formulaic action movie that delivers a high body count. The Old Guard has been directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (the personal 2000 drama Love & Basketball, etc) who, like Kathryn Bigelow and Patty Jenkins, proves to be a surprisingly proficient director of adrenaline-charged muscular and visceral action sequences.  This is a change of pace for the director, but she handles some well-staged, kinetic and quite bloody action scenes and plenty of pyrotechnics.

However, Prince-Bythewood also slows the action down occasionally to allow for some character development, and gives us some insights into the main characters, making them a little more nuanced, rounded and fleshed out than the usual stock standard superhero characters in the Marvel or DC cinematic universe. Andy has been undergoing something of an existential crisis and looks upon her immortality as a curse to be endured, while Booker bears the deep emotional scars of watching loved ones die. Since meeting on opposite sides of the conflict during the Crusades, Joe and Nick have shared a deep personal history that is touchingly revealed in one brief scene.

Following on her roles in Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, Theron again demonstrates her action hero chops as one of the more formidable and physically capable kick-arse female heroines. She also manages to bring some angst and a haunted weariness to the character. Melling is basically a cliched villain here as the oily, snivelling and unethical Merrick who is only interested in profits, while Ejiofor is given little to do and is basically wasted in a fairly thankless role.

The film ranges through a number of exotic locations, from Morocco to Sudan, from Afghanistan to Paris and London, and has been crisply shot in wide screen by cinematographer Tami Reiker (High Art, etc) and Barry Aykroyd (a regular of Ken Loach). They bring a suitably gritty, handheld aesthetic to the action sequences. The action sequences, including a bruising fist fight aboard a plane. have been crisply edited by longtime collaborator Terilyn Shropshire.

There is plenty of material in the series of novels from Rucka, and The Old Guard sets itself up as a potential franchise starter. It would be great to see this team of immortal warriors in action again taking on new challenges and new villains.

★★★

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