The Old Guard, new to Netflix, is a resounding success because it doesn’t focus on what makes these heroes great, it focuses on what makes them human, writes Sam Brooks.
The climax of Netflix’s new movie The Old Guard shouldn’t be anything new, but it feels exhilarating. The titular old guard, a group of immortal beings who immediately heal every wound and come back to life after every death, fight off a private security squad together, and the audience gets to see the fluidity and the muscularity of a group of soldiers who have fought for hundreds of years together. The choreography is less classical ballet and more modern dance; sharp, jutting movements here, spins and lifts there. It’s the sort of fight scene you don’t see any more, where fights are won by a visual effects team, not by heroes, and it’s representative of the electricity that runs throughout The Old Guard.
It shouldn’t be surprising that The Old Guard has a different feel. Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed the tremendously underrated Love and Basketball, has a way of bringing a realness to genres that can be quite resistant to the real. Whether it’s the wistful romance of Love and Basketball, or the popstar melodrama of Beyond the Lights, she brings rawness to scripts and concepts that might not quite warrant them. That make Prince-Bythewood an excellent choice to direct The Old Guard, adapted from the Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández comic book of the same name. She’s not going to deliver a quip-heavy, surface-filled, cameo-ridden film like the most recent films from a certain cinematic universe. She’s going to deliver something real.
The Old Guard shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it does. The last generation of action movies has been bogged down by copious CGI, and as that CGI gets more seamless, it becomes more clear that we’re watching actors reacting to what will eventually be there, rather than reacting to another person sharing space with them. Nowhere was this more clear than in the Marvel films, which increasingly became less about the tremendous charisma of their stars, and more about how many you could copy-paste onto the same computer screen at the same time. Every Avengers movie, and not even Black Panther was immune to this, descended into a light show to resolve their respective points. It becomes tedious to the point when the simple act of seeing actors interact in the same frame becomes revolutionary. There’s a reason why people love the John Wick films; the simple visceral pleasure of seeing someone actually knock someone else down has become exciting. It’s action cinema’s umami.
The plot is fairly rudimentary – four immortals who have worked as mercenaries for centuries find that another person has “woken up” to being immortal. Namely, she died, and came back to life somehow. Somewhere down the line, a Zuckerberg parody comes along with the desire to harvest their genes to make the world immortal. It’s not about the plot, though. This is the rare superhero film that’s about the people.
Charlize Theron is always a wise choice to hang your movie on. She’s that A-lister who has actually proven their worth after winning an Oscar, although her turn in Monster is one of the best performances in the past two decades to win that that honour. Theron has an uncanny ability to show exactly how dampened a character’s humanity and life has become, whether it’s by the post-apocalypse in Mad Max: Fury Road, nostalgic narcissism in Young Adult or simply being a parent in Tully. Pair that with ace comic timing and an unbeatable screen presence, and it’s no wonder she’s in demand to lead movies, regardless of genre.
The Old Guard gives her another meaty role to dig her teeth into, one that isn’t too dissimilar from her turn in the Wick-esque Atomic Blonde from a few years ago. Andy (Andromache of Scythia) is your average grizzled veteran; she’s curt, she’s not especially warm, and she bears the weight of centuries of killing on her shoulders. It won’t rank among the best of Theron’s work, the script isn’t going that deep, but Theron gives her all to the part. In the moments where we flash back to Andy’s past, which is about as traumatic as you’d assume someone who has killed hundreds, if not thousands of people, is, Theron digs in deep. With other actors, these moments would be emoting. With Theron, they’re gut-punches.
The movie shines when it gives the immortals room to grow and interact; to be actual people, not just punchline machines. The newly found immortal Nile, played by Kiki Layne (so excellent in If Beale Street Could Talk), is the newcomer, but the movie gives her a fire of her own. She was a marine in Afghanistan, and she brings the sort of compromised moral backbone that you might expect of that. Even better are Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicolo (Luca Marinelli), former Crusades soldiers who found each other, killed each other, and then fell in love with each other. The Old Guard doesn’t lean away from that fact, and when Joe declares not just his love, but his life, for Nicolo, it felt realer than anything I’ve felt in any of these films before. Definitely realer than whatever the tokenistic moment in Endgame was.
The greatness of The Old Guard is that it tempers the superheroics with the human. It’s a bit lower scale than most films in the genre – there’s no Wow Moment™ like Wonder Woman descending upon No Man’s Land in her film – but what it gains in return is an actual gravity. The immortals might not be able to die, but it says a lot about Prince-Bythewood and her direction that we still feel the stakes of these fight scenes. We care because they’re human, not another layer of Photoshop. In that way, it gets what comic books have understood for decades: we don’t care because they’re superheroes, we care because they’re human.
You can watch The Old Guard on Netflix right now.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.