It wasn’t that long ago that Netflix was considered a wannabe player when it came to original movies actually making a dent as big entertainment and awards contenders, but times change. They’ve seen some of their features earn Oscar nominations, and they’ve also become home to event movies for the small screen. Big action movies are the easiest path to big audiences, and after finding success with the likes of Extraction (2020) and 6 Underground (2019) they’re back at it with another hopeful franchise starter. The Old Guard walks a fine line between action and character beats, and it works to deliver a fun, exciting ride with characters you’ll definitely want to see again.
You think your days are boring? Imagine living forever and spending your time trying to better the world for humankind only to see them constantly strive to make things worse. That’s the pickle Andy (Charlize Theron) finds herself in hundreds of years after dying for the very first time. She leads a team of immortal mercenaries — Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) — taking on causes not for the highest better but for those most in need. When their latest mission goes sideways after revealing itself as a setup, the foursome finds themselves hunted.
Complicating things further? The team starts having visions as elsewhere in the world a young American soldier dies… and comes back. Nile (KiKi Layne) is essentially killed in the field, but her wounds heal leaving her as baffled as her fellow soldiers are concerned. Now Andy and her team have to school Nile in the ways of the immortals even as they find themselves at the greatest risk of their very long lives.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights, 2014) makes a fairly seamless transition into the action genre with this entertaining adaptation of Greg Rucka‘s (Stumptown, 2019) graphic novel. Rucka adapts his own work, and together they manage to offer up solid enough world-building, exciting action beats, and a setup for what’s to come. The film arguably gives up too much of a tease towards that last bit, but it’s in the service of establishing a narrative base on which to build hopefully strong followups. It also results in an end-credits scene that’ll leave you immediately wanting more.
Action sequences are well choreographed and run the gamut from “playful fights — Andy has to brawl with Nile in an attempt to convince her of their healing abilities — to slaughters executed with guns, blades, and fists. There are no big set-pieces here in regard to scale, but those we do get are executed with style and flair revealing Prince-Bythewood as a filmmaker with action chops. She’s found the perfect lead in Theron who’s obviously no stranger to more energetic and deadly characters, and the rest of the cast capably joins in on the fun.
Rucka’s script tries to balance three threads — an origin story, the current predicament, and promises of what’s to come — but rather than leave the film feeling overstuffed it instead feels a bit slight. Flashbacks do a lot of the heavy lifting here to fill in story blanks and highlight Andy’s reluctance to carry on. The film’s strongest sequences are such flashbacks introducing a past immortal who ended up dying for good and another to whom Andy had grown immensely close. Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) spent centuries with her before being dealt a severe, nightmarish sentence at the ocean’s bottom. More time with these two in the past would only have benefited the present, but instead, we’re given short yet still effective teases of what was.
The crux of it all comes down to a question of purpose. Andy sees none as “Some good means nothing.” She’s been fighting to save the world for centuries, and she’s no closer to her goal than when she started. “There was a time when I was worshiped as a god,” she adds, saying that she no longer believes in god. If life is meaningless, an immortal life is hell. The promise that her immortality could end any day isn’t enough anymore, and the arrival of new blood might not be enough of a reason to continue. The script is a bit patchy at times in dealing with Andy’s dilemma, but it works well enough. It’s also aided by a counterpoint involving Joe and Nicky as soul mates who get to enjoy the bliss of immortality. Is living forever worth it if you have to do so without love?
The Old Guard asks some heady questions, and if it doesn’t quite do each of them justice the results are still solidly entertaining across the board. The action is fun, the cast is stellar, and the mythology on display is rarely less than engaging. It’s a film that leaves you wanting more, and hopefully, we won’t need to wait a lifetime before we get it.