Old Guard, The (United States, 2020)

July 15, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Old Guard, The Poster

The concept of immortality isn’t new material for either comic books or science fiction/fantasy but the seriousness with which it is treated by The Old Guard is atypical. The movie, based on the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka & Leandro Fernandez, doesn’t simply use immortality as the foundation of its characters’ superheroism, but it explores the downsides of the condition: the grinding endlessness of the passing years, the loneliness of not daring to become close to another person, the pain of watching loved ones age, die, and pass beyond the memory of their descendants. For a mortal, death is a thing to be feared and avoided. For an immortal, it is something to be craved, pursued, and embraced.

The Old Guard focuses on a quartet of immortals who have banded together with the laudable goal of trying, to the best of their ability, to make a difference for good in the trajectory of history. From the inside looking out, they’re unsure of their success and, as a result, doubts are impinging on their mission. From the outside looking in, ex-CIA analyst Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has painfully tracked their footprints through modern and ancient history, sees no such uncertainty.

Andy (Charlize Theron) is the oldest of the group. Lovers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) joined her around the time of the Crusades. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) is from the 19th century. At the moment, they are being hunted by a ruthless Big Pharma CEO/all-around-bad guy named Merrick (Harry Melling, who is best remembered for playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies). Merrick has recruited Copley under false pretenses. Copley sees this as an opportunity to help humanity, but Merrick primarily sees $$$. Meanwhile, the quartet has other issues. Not only have they discovered the existence of another immortal – a Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne) who mysteriously doesn’t die when her throat is slit, but Andy is showing alarming signs of losing her ability to take a licking and keep on ticking. Immortals can die once their time is up. It happened once before and it may be happening again. Plus, Andy is haunted by the sentence handed down to her best friend, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), during the Salem Witch Trials.

The Old Guard blends the intelligence of a well-written dramatic sci-fi/fantasy tale with the action/adventure of a big budget motion picture. The action scenes have the overproduced qualities and frenetic choreography of an Atomic Blonde (which Theron made in 2017). Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is able to maintain a smooth flow while incorporating background material and developing interpersonal relationships. For the director, this is an extreme change-of-pace (she made her feature debut with Love & Basketball and followed that with The Secret Life of Bees), marking an assured entrance into the action/thriller genre. As an added benefit, Prince-Bythewood’s familiarity with smaller, character-based stories gives greater depth to The Old Guard.

Strong acting from all five principal actors – Theron, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Matthias Schoenaerts – allows for key instances of chemistry to ignite. These include the pupil/mentor relationship between Andy and Nile, the centuries-long romance between Joe and Nicky, and the breezy friendship of Andy and Booker. Theron gives Andy multi-dimensionality – the weight of the centuries has worn her down and created deep caverns of self-doubt. Guilt for two devastating personal losses and every life she has had to take makes her yearn for the peace that has been denied to her.

The most palpable expression of what it means to be immortal is provided by Booker when he explains to Nile why she can’t contact her family. He mentions his two sons and, without being specific, details what happens when a loved one feels betrayed by a father who can no longer die. Equally compelling, albeit for different reasons, is Andy’s description of Quynh’s fate: her location unknown, she has been trapped in an underwater iron coffin, drowning repeatedly every few minutes for 500 years. It’s the kind of horrific torment that only an immortal can experience and proof that sometimes living forever can be the worst kind of curse.

The Old Guard, as befits a cinematic adaptation of a comic book, has a superhero team-flavor to it, although the tone is reminiscent of the melancholic reflectiveness of Logan. Although the film presents a relatively complete chapter of a longer saga, the dangling threads hint at future installments (and an inter-credits sequence all-but-promises one). If sequels are made with the same equal mix of character-based narrative and kick-ass action, then The Old Guard could represent the next franchise to become excited about.

Old Guard, The (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2020-07-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1