Based on the comic book of the same name by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay), The Old Guard is a fantasy-action (superhero?) movie directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) about a secret team of immortal mercenaries whose existence is exposed after they are set up by a former associate. With evidence of their incredible healing abilities now in the hands of a greedy and immoral pharmaceutical company, the immortals must now fight to protect themselves while also dealing with the discovery of a new young immortal who struggles with the new reality and mercenary team she finds herself in.
Andy (Charlize Theron) is an immortal being who leads a team of other immortals as mercenaries for hire. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) have followed Andy for hundreds of years and despite Andy’s jadedness towards the current state of the world, the guys in the team still feel they can do some good for society. With this positive mind-set, the team accepts a mission they would normally refuse by going against Andy’s rule of never accepting a mission from repeat clients. When the mission is revealed to be a setup and their secret exposed, the team must take action to protect themselves. There’s an added complication, however.
In Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Nile (KiKi Layne) is killed while on a mission. When she wakes up back on base without any sign of injury, her life becomes filled with confusion and questions. With the military asking questions and wanting to run tests on her, Nile finds herself in a situation rapidly getting out of her control. Fortunately for her, Andy puts additional risk to herself and her team by finding Nile and taking her away from the government’s future plans for her..
But Nile isn’t ready to give up her normal life and family for the lonely life as an immortal mercenary. She is resistant about joining the team and does not want to leave her family. However she discovers quickly that there are more important things to focus on when the gravity of her situation sinks in – for they are being hunted for their DNA by ex CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the CEO of Merrick Pharmaceuticals, Merrick (Harry Melling), whose financial resources allow him to hire all the firepower needed to capture these immortal warriors. Nile had better get with the program, or risk becoming a lab rat at the hands of Big Pharma.
The acting overall is generally on par with what you’d expect for a fantasy-action film that feels like it’s trying to dip its toes into the superhero genre too, deviating from typical action acting to moments of comic book cheesiness and then to moments of solid drama. This results in the actors delivering some surprisingly fantastic dramatic moments, like when Joe and Nicky are captured and Joe delivers a short monologue about how Nicky isn’t just his boyfriend.
Marwan Kenzari steals the show in one scene with his moving, heartfelt words where for a moment you forget this is an action genre movie. It’s a vulnerable, full-of-love, human moment that really stands out from all the brutal action that happens before and afterwards. Can you say Oscar?
But then there are moments where the immortals formally team up with a person with the resources that can assist them with their endeavors. This pivotal and “dramatic” point becomes a comic-book cringeworthy monologue with Charlize Theron laying down what’s going to happen in the future and Kenzari gets to drop in a finishing line to seal the deal so to speak. Goodbye, Oscar.
Having said all that, the acting isn’t really the reason you watch this type of movie. We watch movies like The Old Guard for the action. Putting aside the large swing between the dramatic and comic-cringe performances, if there’s one thing all the actors are getting top marks for – is the action. And director Gina Prince-Bythewood has made sure we get plenty of it. I’m sure there were many stunt doubles in the making of this film, however you can tell all the actors turned up to fight rehearsals because you can clearly see they took significant part in the fight scenes themselves.
Of particular note regarding the action performances, Theron is amazing as the significantly older immortal who has thousands of years of combat experience. She is intended to be the most dangerous of the group and Theron easily embodies this whether it’s in hand to hand combat – with or without her ancient axe – or using a range of firearms. With Theron’s experience on Atomic Blonde it’s no wonder she physically portrays this action role with ease.
But what really helps drive the action isn’t just the star power of Theron, it’s the teamwork of all the characters. The filmmakers have made sure that despite the immortal nature of the characters they still need to work as a team in order to survive. For while they can heal and recover from death, they don’t possess super strength or agility or the extra type of physically enhanced abilities you’d see in most comic book films. Instead, they must rely on teamwork and years of combat experience to take down the number of adversaries they are faced against.
Apart from never dying, they also have flaws, strengths and vulnerabilities in their personalities which helps shape their action scenes. This makes The Old Guard fight sequences, which clearly borrow more than a bit from the John Wick films, more than just the good guys beating up the bad guys. Where John Wick has a lone warrior annihilating scores and scores of baddies and is essentially just channeling revenge and anger, the immortals in The Old Guard need each other emotionally and as kindred spirits so when they fight; they’re fueled by love, kinship and a shared goal to achieve the same type of body count.
The Old Guard is a fun popcorn flick with some great action sequences and an interesting premise that works well in today’s modern era. Fans of the original Highlander will appreciate the idea of immortal characters who have fought across great periods of time and influenced history, only making it about teamwork instead of lone warriors. Incredible action scenes with incredibly athletic stunt work – mostly from the stars themselves – make this a must-see for any fans of action and/or fantasy genres. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a sequel is already planned as I’m keen to see where this team goes next.