The Old Guard stars Charlize Theron, who leads a small band of immortal soldiers for hire, taking paid mercenary gigs all over the world to help the defenseless and desperate.
If you’ve got any taste or good sense at all, that right there should be enough to sell you on this movie. Seriously, go back and read that premise again, word by word. What more could you possibly want or need to know? Even if it turns out to be awful (and to be clear, it really is that fucking awesome), you know that even a bad movie with that premise is bound to be entertaining.
I can’t imagine why you’re still here, but if you need more reasons to give the film a shot, read on.
The film is written by Portland’s own Greg Rucka, adapted from his graphic novel. In the director’s chair is Gina Prince-Bythewood, and it’s always a pleasure to see a black woman behind the camera, especially in such a male-dominated genre.
Theron (also a producer through her Denver and Delilah Productions shingle) stars as Andi, the oldest of four immortals. It’s never made clear precisely how old she is, though it’s implied that her history goes all the way back to the freaking Trojan War. We’ve also got Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli, respectively playing Joe and Nicky, both of whom fought on opposing sides in the Crusades. Rounding out the crew is Matthias Schoenaertes as Booker, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.
All four of them can heal instantly from any wound, no matter how grievous or mortal. Their immortality is not genetic and there’s no way of knowing who may become an immortal or when, but all immortals are somehow telepathically linked to each other through their dreams. They can all feel pain, and their powers do have a shelf life, but there’s no telling when or where their immortality will wear off. And none of them have any idea how or why any of this works.
Anyway, all four of them are career soldiers who take mercenary gigs because what else are they going to do with their time and powers? Long story short, a huge pharmaceutical company (led by CEO Steven Merrick, played by Harry Melling) discovers our immortal crew and sees dollar signs. He wants to find their secrets to end all disease and mortality (making a handsome profit for it, of course), he wants to use the immortals as endlessly viable human lab rats, and he doesn’t want any competing company to even know about them. Thus the pharma giant chases after the immortal soldiers and we’re off to the races.
And of course there’s more.
Enter Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a US Marine who got her throat cut open in Afghanistan and inexplicably survived without a scar. Yes, she’s the first new immortal in 200 years, reluctantly brought on board to serve as our audience viewpoint character. She’s also an immortal that Merrick doesn’t know about yet, which comes in handy during the third act.
Let’s get the nitpicks out of the way early. To start with, I’m not a fan of the handheld camerawork. While I’ve certainly seen worse, it was still obnoxious enough to be distracting. The editing is also rather choppy, which does no favor to the action scenes.
Yes, the action scenes are nicely satisfying and all the characters are effectively sold as badass killing machines with eons of experience. God knows Charlize “Atomic Blonde” Theron has more than proven herself to be one of the most criminally underrated female action stars currently working. And yes, the choreography is A-1, with effective teamwork and brutal kills across the board.
Alas, with all due respect to Gina Prince-Bythewood and with acknowledgment to the dearth of jobs typically afforded to female directors of color, the fact remains that she made her name with such rom-coms as The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights. I can’t shake the feeling that in the hands of a more experienced action director, with a better sense of how to shoot and edit those stunts, these sequences would’ve been absolutely mind-blowing instead of merely enjoyable. Still, the action scenes here show potential and I sincerely hope that Prince-Bythewood gets the opportunity to build on whatever lessons and experience she gained here.
Though really, while the action may be the initial draw, it’s the character work that makes this movie worth your time.
To start with, the casting is amazing. I can’t possibly stress enough that Theron is firmly in her wheelhouse here and she owns every second onscreen. I was never a fan of Matthias Schoenaerts, but he gets some of the best lines in the picture and his scene at the 70-minute mark is a showstopper. KiKi Layne more than proved herself capable of carrying an entire film with If Beale Street Could Talk, Marwan Kenzari already proved himself an underappreciated supporting player with Aladdin (2019), and the both of them only prove themselves further here. The weak link among the immortals is probably Luca Marinelli — he doesn’t look a thing like a centuries-old hardass, but I’ll be damned if he can’t act the part when it counts.
Elsewhere, we’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor playing a tortured and morally ambiguous ex-CIA operative with his unique and everlasting brand of charisma. Harry Melling — the erstwhile Dudley Dursley himself — does a masterful job at playing a villain who’s amoral and complex, yet so much fun to hate. Really, every single actor down to the last supporting player is perfectly cast.
Which brings me to the characters themselves and all the thematic work in here. I hope you brought a shovel and some good sturdy boots, because there’s a lot to dig into here.
It bears repeating that the immortals can die, they just don’t know when they’re going to die or when their wounds will stop healing so quickly. So really, they have the same familiar fear of death, mortality, the uncertainty of an afterlife, and the slow irreversible decay of biology.
Moreover, they all know the grief that comes from living on while their loved ones suffer and die. They know (perhaps better than anyone else) the physical and emotional trauma that comes from pain and injury. They all have baggage, they all have mistakes to try and atone for, and they don’t even have the option of suicide.
Then there’s the matter of faith, destiny, and so on. All of these immortals live in constant fear of persecution (more specifically, being caged without the option of escape, or being made to die over and over again), and at least one of them suffered through the goddamn witch trials! After all of that, of course the immortals could be forgiven for their belief that organized religion is malicious bullshit and there’s no just or forgiving god out there. And yet, the immortals have no idea why they exist or why they’re drawn together, so what other explanation could there be if it isn’t destiny?
Speaking of which, our main antagonist is a pharmaceutical company that helps people through medicine, even as it bankrupts people through a broken health care system. Our heroes have been fighting in various wars for so many centuries, trying and struggling to make the world a better place, only to see it backslide ever further into a hellish shitshow of misery and greed. What does it really mean to save lives, and what does it take to fix a broken world? When is it better to fight and kill, and when is it better to mend and heal?
Which brings me to the flip side. These characters have been together for so long that there is love and affection between them like no mortal could even conceive. And that’s not even getting started on the empathic dream-bond between them. I don’t even think there’s a word for the level of camaraderie these characters have developed. In the case of Joe and Nicky, this manifests as the most beautiful and eloquent same-sex relationship I’ve seen in any media since Love, Simon.
Perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that while Andi and company may think the world looks shitty in the moment, they’ve done a lot of good work saving lives. And we’re shown how those rescued lives have effected far-reaching positive outcomes several decades down the line.
In summary, what we’ve got here is a broad, sweeping, poignant examination of the human condition writ large. Imagine everything we’ve accomplished, everything we have to live with, everything we’ve suffered through, every existential crisis we’ve ever had over the 70-80 years we’ve got on this planet. Now imagine that multiplied over several thousand years, embodied by soldiers who’ve been charging onto battlefields for pretty much the entire span of human history.
Even in spite of my quibbles with the camerawork and editing, I don’t know if I can heap enough praise onto The Old Guard. It’s a rare gem that can deliver solid action and heartfelt themes a dozen layers thick, each in such a way that they complement the other. It’s bold, it’s creative, it’s intelligent, it portrays people of color and LGBTQ characters without tokenizing them… I could seriously keep going on and on about everything this film does new and everything it does right.
We can only hope that this is the quality of summer blockbuster we can look forward to in a post-COVID world. There’s no official word on a sequel yet, but I’m there for it if if ever comes. In the meantime, this one comes strongly recommended. Don’t miss out.