REVIEW: Netflix’s The Old Guard

The Old Guard 1

The Old Guard is a fantastic action adventure that is elevated by its cast of compelling characters and its focus on the burden of immortality.

The Old Guard is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez and the script was written by Rucka himself. The story centers on a group of immortal soldiers who have been secretly protecting our world for centuries. But when the group is exposed to the rest of the world, their new recruit Nile resolves to save the team from those who seek to exploit them.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) delivers an entertaining and profound film that balances thrilling action sequences with somber character moments. The fight scenes are sleekly executed and each sequence never misses a beat, proving that the warriors are truly the best of the best, having had centuries of training. Their unique superpower, of course, is that they never die, but this brings along its fair share of problems.

Genre fans might get a kick out of the cast because the story is basically Imperator Furiosa leading a group of elite, immortal soldiers, one of whom is Jafar, and who are being targeted by Baron Mordo and Dudley Dursley. But fandom references aside, The Old Guard is a refreshing take on the superhero genre because it focuses more on the characters’ personal struggles with their ability to live forever.

The Old Guard AndyCharlize Theron plays Andromache of Scythia or Andy, the leader of the group and a warrior thousands of years old. Theron imbues her performance with majesty and melancholy as she plays the world-weary Andy, who has lost her sense of purpose after millennia of fighting for the world. She questions whether she and her team are doing any good when the world never seems to change. Andy is also the strongest fighter of the group and Theron dominates every fight scene and is especially impressive when she wields her double-bladed axe called the Labrys.

Kiki Layne plays Nile Freeman, the newest addition, who attains her immortality just as the group finds themselves targeted by an evil pharmaceutical corporation. But Nile is more than just the audience surrogate who allows Andy to share exposition about the nature of their immortality. Layne gives Nile enough nuance to make her feel like a character truly out of her depth with her new, inexplicable circumstances but who nevertheless is a capable fighter, a compassionate daughter, and a loyal companion.

Andy and Nile’s mentor and mentee relationship brings heart to The Old Guard as well as the familial bond forged over centuries that exists among the four older immortals. Nile is a breath of fresh air and energy to the group who haven’t had a new member in years. And it is Nile who helps remind Andy of the good that they are doing and can continue to do for the world.

All warriors have different ways of coping with the burden of living forever. Matthias Schoenaerts as Booker has a heartbreaking backstory that is surpassed only by Andy’s and his somber explanation of the pain of living while watching one’s loved ones die illustrates the tragedy of their situation. His sorrow can explain some his actions later in the film and provide Nile with a glimpse of the difficult life she has to face.

Joe and Nicky are more fortunate, having fallen in love and remained in love for centuries. Their relationship is one of the highlights of The Old Guard as it portrays a healthy, loving LGBT romance that is not the focus of the film but nevertheless is an integral part of the characters’ arcs. Joe and Nicky are unabashedly in love with each other and it is this bond that makes them more effective fighters and more able to deal with their impossibly long life spans.

The Old Guard repeatedly shows that the greatest tragedy of immortality is spending it alone. And that is the importance of Joe and Nicky’s enduring love as well as the relationship of the team, with Nile warmly welcomed into the fold by the end of the film. Andy explains that their ability to be revived still has its limits and when it is a warrior’s time to go, their immortality is extinguished. Living with this uncertainty ensures that the characters do not always feel invincible, knowing that, no matter how long they might have to live, they are still capable of dying.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Copley, a fascinating character who starts out as one of the villains but who eventually gets redeemed. He has spent years tracking down the team’s movements across history and he has amassed a great knowledge of the impact of their work. His motives for capturing them are noble but it seems suspect that someone supposedly as smart as him was so easily convinced by the real villain of the piece, Harry Melling, the standard, evil big pharma CEO with his army of faceless goons and unethical scientists.

The main conflict of The Old Guard may follow standard superhero genre tropes but it does allow for some thrilling action sequences as the team of five immortals take down an army together. While the villain is as lackluster as they come, The Old Guard shines because of the relationships it has established among the main cast and its focus on the pain of immortality.

Spoiler warning: Another immortal warrior was referenced in the film who will definitely make for a more compelling antagonist should there be (and there should be!) a sequel. Quynh, Andy’s close companion who was drowned in an Iron Maiden for centuries during the Salem witch trials, makes a surprise appearance at the end of the film. Having suffered and survived more than 500 years at the bottom of the ocean, Quynh has a real gripe with humanity and her return will surely bring about a more complex conflict for the team. Here’s hoping the sequel gets greenlit.

The film also stands out because of its diverse representation onscreen and behind the cameras. It’s a genuinely well-executed action film with a woman as the lead and with her protégé being a woman of color. There is a healthy portrayal of an LGBT relationship as well as several significant characters who are people of color as well.

We need more action films like The Old Guard, and given the fascinating mythology behind the film, there is more than enough material for future chapters.

In the meantime, enjoy this clip of the immortal warriors of The Old Guard through history: