The Old Guard Proves You Don’t Need Marvel Money to Make Superhero Magic

The Old Guard is a roughly defined “superhero” film written by comics scribe Greg Rucka, and based on his own comic series of the same name. It was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) for Netflix at a budget of around $70 million dollars, which is well below and hundreds of millions that major studios often drop on their blockbuster fare.

It is easily one of the better films of this genre in the past decade, and deserved a theatrical release. It also deserves a sequel, so do the world a solid and add to their ratings by giving it a watch.

[Some spoilers for The Old Guard below.]

The Old Guard follows a group of immortals with regenerative capabilities who are led by Andy (Charlize Theron), forming their own small army. They offer up their services to those who need them, doing their best to stay hidden, but hoping they are improving the world. Unfortunately, their immortality is a gift that doesn’t last forever—though there is no rhyme or reason for how it’s used up—and the same moment that Andy’s gift switches off, a new immortal named Nile (KiKi Layne) is awakened for the first time in centuries. This comes at the same moment when a former CIA agent named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has struck a bargain with a big Pharma CEO named Steven Merrick (Harry Melling, who you probably best recognize as Dudley Dursley in the Potter films) to gather up the immortals and study them for the sake of scientific and medicinal breakthroughs that might help the planet.

Unsurprisingly, Merrick is a power-hungry mega-corp monster (there’s another conversation to be had about the current crop of villains all being written as start-up CEO white boys in their late 20s-early 30s, dripping with disdain and wearing hoodies with their expensive blazers, but that’s for another time perhaps), and intends to keep the immortals as prisoners and lab rats so that none of his competitors can get their hands on such valuable genetic material. After his people kidnap Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), Andy, Nile, and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) have to mount a rescue and put an end to Merrick’s plans once and for all.

The only thing occasionally off about the film is its editing—there are several jumps where it seems as though frames are missing, establishing shots or indications of the passage of time that we never see properly. That along with a few very of-the-moment songs choices (which can still be fun, in a Highlander-esque sort of way) are the only aspects that don’t entirely gel in a movie that is beautifully directed, choreographed, and shot. The fight sequences frequently elicit that hold-your-breath response that you want from good action, and while the beats of the script aren’t always the clearest (likely an issue in lifting from a comics format to overlay on a two-hour film framework), it’s packed to the brim with great characters and story.

The violence is gory, but never veers into the realm of over-gratuitous, which can be a hard line to walk these days. This film is excellent at flipping tropes and offering up the best of them with a twist that makes the whole genre feel brand new. The relationship between Andy and Nile is one that you see constantly on film—the veteran teaching the new kid the ropes in a world they don’t yet understand—but it feels more vibrant than ever to watch that dynamic unfold between two women. KiKi Layne distinguishes herself throughout the film in the role of Nile, imbuing her with a frank kindness and competence that show the makings of great action hero. She deserves more roles like this, and more opportunities to shine.

This is a film that seems abundantly aware of the era it is being released into, and it offers up forgiveness and humanity in often beautiful and startling ways. Andy is incapable of forgiving herself for giving up the search for her first immortal companion, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), who was locked into an iron coffin and dropped into the sea, there to wake and drown in a never-ending cycle. But while Andy and Booker have both soured on life due to their recent string of failures, Copley is able to take the birds-eye view of their accomplishments throughout history and illuminate their value to the world. Nile also provides forgiveness through action, in her decision to become a part of their team when she could chose to run away. When Andy is hurting, she is given aid by a random pharmacy cashier—and when she asks why this French goth deigned to lend a hand during her night shift, the woman plainly tells her that she deserves that aid, and should pass it on to the next person she meets. Though the film is overflowing with violence, this is its real message, to help and forgive others as often as you can and try to leave the world better than you found it.

Copley is also granted forgiveness for not guessing what Merrick would actually do to the immortals, and when he tells Nile of his reasons for believing that immortal genetics could have led to a better future, he talks about his late wife’s battle with ALS. He tells Nile that at the end, his wife couldn’t speak—“she couldn’t breathe”—and the echo of the world we live in raises its hand and strikes sharply in reminder. Again, absolution is deeply personal and comes from unlikely corners; when Copley tries to help Nile rescue her new friends from Merrick, she insists that he stay behind, that he doesn’t use guilt as a reason to forfeit his life. It is a quiet moment between two people, and those moments are the ones that The Old Guard excels at and litters throughout its premise in abundance.

The film is incredibly queer to boot—it is difficult to have a film with Charlize Theron in which she does not come off as ferociously bisexual, and Andy’s chemistry with Quynh (even in flashback) raises plenty of pointed questions all by itself. But there are also Joe and Nicky, two of Andy’s team who met during the Crusades, on opposing sides. These two deserve their own prequel: two soldiers who discovered one another on a battlefield during a holy war and set about killing each other again and again before realizing that their enemy was in fact the love of their life. When they are kidnapped by Merrick’s people, one of the security officers in the van teases Joe about checking in on Nicky with the usual homophobic barb—“What is he, your boyfriend?”—and Joe calmly tears into him, assuring the guy that “boyfriend” doesn’t even begin to describe what this man is to him.

What I’m saying is, in a world where queer fans have repeatedly asked for creatives to replace the Bury Your Gays trope with Unkillable Gays and Immortal Gays, The Old Guard seems to have heard the plea loud and clear. Joe and Nicky’s love is what protects them from the cynicism that has overtaken Andy and Booker, and it beams outward at the audience in every frame of their eternally smitten faces.

The film sets itself up for a sequel with gusto, and there are some genuine concerns on that front because it involves Quynh, who is likely being lined up as a built-in villain for any further adventures. Provided that a sequel treats her with the same compassion that everyone in the first film was shown (they took the only Asian woman in the film and dropped her into the sea, she deserves a lot more than a fun bad-guy arc), that could prove an extremely worthy exercise—I only hope that Netflix is ready to throw more money their way. Also, though it should go without saying, give Prince-Bythewood more projects like this. She’s been a great director for decades, and that fact that it took this long to hand over a bigger-budget action film to her is a shame for cinema. The Old Guard more than proves that.

Emmet Asher-Perrin is going to spend the rest of the day thinking about immortal Crusade boyfriends, natch. You can bug them on Twitter, and read more of their work here and elsewhere.

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