The Old Guard is a surprising film in that it subverts expectations, carrying with it a burden as old as its leading characters. That burden is never shed, but it works to add a depth that most action films have lacked over the years. In that respect alone, The Old Guard, which is based on the comic book by Greg Rucka, offers a refreshing take on superhero tropes, even as it foregoes on any further exploration of the savior complex.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights) with a screenplay by Rucka, The Old Guard gets off to a shaky start. Andy (Charlize Theron) leads a team of ancient and immortal mercenaries — Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) — who seem worn out from their self-assigned mission to save people. It doesn’t help that the film depicts the Sudanese and Afghani people as less than or in need of saving from outsiders, a tired trope that’s been carried out over decades by Western media.
The immortals realize they’re being tracked down by Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former CIA operative working for Merrick (Harry Melling), a pompous, money-hungry pharmaceutical CEO who believes the immortals are the key to healing any human disease. Really, Merrick is obsessed with one-upping his competition rather than genuinely caring about how Andy and co. can actually help others medically. When they collectively have a vision of a new immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, Andy heads off to recruit her.
The Old Guard is a coherent, cohesive action film that prioritizes its characters above its fight sequences. That said, its action scenes are quite spectacular and well choreographed. None of them take place in complete darkness, which is a solid choice given that most action films have terrible lighting and it’s usually hard to see what’s going on. It’s also noticeable that each character has their own unique fighting style, which makes for incredibly engaging and thrilling action sequences that are much more focused on hand-to-hand combat than anything else.
However, The Old Guard is at its strongest when the characters are questioning their morality, their purpose, and the ways in which they’ve been conditioned to think. On one hand, it’s very frustrating that Nile is plucked from the ranks of the military stationed in Afghanistan. Having to watch as her and other soldiers break into the home of terrified Afghani citizens with the military playing the role of the “good guy” is tiring. What’s far more interesting is Nile’s admission about being conditioned to fight, but not deal with the repercussions of actually killing someone.
That said, it barely scratches the surface considering that it’s less about those being targeted than the ones pulling the trigger. What’s more, it makes the film less exciting knowing that all of the immortals were previously soldiers. Joe and Nicky, for example, were soldiers during the Crusades, while Booker was an officer who fought alongside Napoleon. Why do soldiers seem primed to become these lifelong heroes? What about the unnamed civilians who suffer the consequences? It’s middling and frustrating to continuously prop up soldiers as the fighters and saviors and heroes our society apparently needs, glorifying them as the best of us when it can be argued otherwise.
Despite this, The Old Guard stands tall as a character-driven action film. The exploration of how lonely immortality can be is viscerally captured. With the absence of death, the ever-present question regarding their life’s purpose becomes even harder to pin down, with the characters trapped in an endless and seemingly empty cycle the longer they live. Booker losing sight of that drives his ill-advised actions, while Andy’s lack of purpose makes her every move feel despondent and weary. With no more joy, passion, or purpose, what else is there but emptiness, waiting slowly for their time to finally be up?
Nile, on the other hand, is young. She still sees the possibilities despite knowing she can probably never see her family again. She reignites that passion for wanting to do good in Andy, who was at the end of her rope. Despite Nile’s initial resistance to suddenly becoming immortal, she finds some sense of peace with her new and unexpected mission. Meanwhile, Joe and Nicky’s love story tides the waves of emptiness. They fight and love so fiercely because of their emotional and loyal bond to each other and the depth of their love is what anchors their immortal lives and gives it some meaning. Kenzari and Marinelli really sell their relationship and it’s one of the standouts of the film.
The film’s mid-credits scene even sets up a potential sequel that could shake up the characters’ status quo. And, regardless of a few shortcomings, Prince-Bythewood breathes new life into the genre, tactfully and thoughtfully exposing each characters’ motivations and headspace, all while providing some of the best fight sequences in an action film in some time.