The range of talented filmmakers now bewitched by the comic book lens runs longer than many would like to see. With questions surrounding how much control these filmmakers exert over the film’s vision or whether they’re merely relegated to a cog in a machine, most critics are left weary by such lateral moves by proven talents. With titles that include Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees, Gina Prince-Bythewood is the latest filmmaker to take the plunge, and she does so with thoughtful abandonment. Based on Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández’s graphic novel of the same name, Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard — a film about super-soldier immortals —values character depth over macho violence for a thriller that’s as emotional as it is exciting.
Mostly known for romantic films, in The Old Guard, Prince-Bythewood shifts from capturing clashing hearts, to surmising opposing armed forces. Here, on one side, is an army of four. They’re a group of near-immortals gifted with Wolverine-like healing powers. Born in different eras: Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) fought with Napoleon; Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) date back to the Crusades; while their leader Addy (Charlize Theron), also known as Andromache of Scythia, has lived for at least 6,000 years — they traced the existence of each other through their visceral dreams. That’s how they discover Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne); a soldier stationed in Afghanistan who shares their gift.
While the origin of their abilities remain mysterious to even them, they can point toward two facts: 1. They are no completely immortal. Without warning, their wounds will lose the ability to heal, leading to death. 2. The danger of capture and torture pervades their existence. Such a specter arises from a big pharma villain Merrick (Harry Melling); who’s one part Josef Mangele, and two parts Mark Zuckerberg. With the help of ex-CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor); he wants the group captured and experimented upon in the hopes of unlocking the secret of their immortality.
Unfortunately, as a villain, Merrick is disappointingly one-dimensional. Though he derives satisfaction from solving a mystery no matter the cost, whether he desires to change or rule the world, foster the secret of immortality for himself, or is only concerned with the bottom line, isn’t abundantly clear. Instead, he’s a cartoonish Silicon Valley stand-in that elicits zero fear from viewers and heroes, alike, because his menace springs from our already existent hate of wayward institutions and apathetic intellectualism run amuck. That is, it’s not the hired men with the guns you should fear, it’s the dweeby kid with zero moral compass. I think you should fear both, but that’s for another time.
Other surface level components include a not remotely subtle twist and Copley’s thin but tragic backstory, however, Layne feels miscast. While she certainly demonstrates a high-level of excellence with her fight choreography, she’s never believable in the role of soldier turned immortal. Partly because her character requires greater emotional bandwidth than she provides, and partly due to her lack of chemistry with anyone in the cast, including Theron.
Nevertheless, The Old Guard works in other ways. For instance, Joe and Nick represent the rare example of an openly gay couple in a comic book adaption. Their continued defiance against the outside toxic masculinity that lampoons their love is powerfully expressed, especially in opposition to the violence they face. Seeing a superhero flick headlined by two women: one white and the other Black, finally allows on-screen heroism to mirror our surroundings. While Theron absolutely kicks ass throughout.
Furthermore, the compositions supporting Prince-Bythewood’s fight choreography demonstrate her eye for sharply condescended yet visceral action sequences — accomplished by way of editor Terilyn Shropshire’s penchant for longer takes — which buoys this thriller to a surprising emotional resonance.
At times, The Old Guard is emotional and intimate. Damaged characters like Booker, Addy, and Nile populate scenes and backstories that drip with heartache. With each pain they share, the less immortality seems like a gift. To these ends, Prince-Bythewood always finds the character drama lurking beneath the dizzying action scenes. While The Old Guard is due for better a villain in any future installments, where Layne hopefully settles into her character, what’s present is a smartly shot thriller that positions emotion and representation over brunt force.
Coming to Netflix July 10th