The Old Guard is led by the ever excellent Charlize Theron and a strong supporting cast that showcases a smart take on IP action material.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a knack for finding the humanity in ridiculous plots. Love & Basketball somehow makes a climactic one-on-one basketball game to determine the future of two relationships into a deeply moving experience. Beyond the Lights manages a touching love story through the lens of a modern version of The Bodyguard formula. In The Old Guard, those skills at humanizing the absurd are essential, because the plot is utterly ridiculous, even by the standards of comic book films.
The Old Guard focuses on the adventures of a team of apparently unkillable warriors led by Charlize Theron (The Long Shot). The squad – filled out by Matthias Schoenaerts (The Mustang), Marwan Kenzari (Aladdin), and Luca Marinelli (They Call Me Jeeg)– has formed a tight knit over their time together. The “youngest” of the group discovered his powers in the early 1800s. They have largely spent the centuries attempting to do good. The inciting action here sees a new immortal played by KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) join the team.
As COVID struck the United States this year, a new movie called Bloodshot was released. Bloodshot also deals with an unkillable soldier attempting to right wrongs and hunt down bad guys, but it is a lovely showpiece for everything that The Old Guard gets right. While Bloodshot does not have the courage – or acting talent – to let the premise just rest, The Old Guard is content to have long action-free sections focused on the relationships between the characters. One of the film’s most effective scenes sees Matthias Schoenaerts sit with the team’s new recruit and describe the burden of immortality. Prince-Bythewood leaves the camera largely locked to Schoenaert’s face, as he explains the burden of having to watch your family die – genuine character work with excellent actors humanizes the ridiculous premise.
Prince-Bythewood’s gift for humanizing is spread throughout the team. The fact that two of the members of the team are a gay couple here is played as a simple matter of fact. When harassed by an enemy mercenary about their relationship, Kenzari is given a moment to shine as he describes the passionate thousand-year relationship between the two. It is a moment of humanity unlikely to exist in a normal theatrical release, where too many studio films still cower to the whims of Chinese and Russian censors.
Bloodshot’s action is loud, full of CGI and riddled with aggressive cuts. If we have learned anything from the last few decades of cinema, it is that anyone can make an action movie, but precious few directors can make action sequences essential. Prince-Blythewood crafts essential action. Her fight scenes are full of long takes that show off her actors’ physicality but also cut with purpose. It is not simply a matter of aping John Wick’s long sequences, rather the camera shifts perspective when it makes sense to change focus to a different combatant. Theron remains a brilliant physical performer – she moves with stupendous intentionality and her natural athleticism remains clear. Whether tasked with gun play, jiu jitsu, or medieval battle axes, she has proven herself one of the greatest female action stars ever.
There are some issues here. The actual plot of the film is predictable and inessential, including a truly dopey villain turn by Harry Melling (Dudley in the Harry Potter series). I would like to see more Old Guard movies, but I cannot help but roll my eyes at the pre-credits stinger here which in effect renders a sequel essential to close the loop of the story. Finally, the pacing is not quite taut enough to main tain the narrative: sometimes the film seems to drag for long stretches especially when dealing with exposition dumps.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but note that Gina Prince-Bythewood has consistently made excellent and financially responsible films throughout her career, but has spent many years relegated to directing TV shows. She is the sort of talent who should not be stuck directing episodes of shows on Freeform Network between movie projects. Were she a white man, she would be in desperate demand. As a black female director, she is forced to toil between her real projects. I hope The Old Guard succeeds and gives her the platform and awareness she deserves. The Old Guard demonstrates a way forward for IP content: humanity buttressed by action instead of the other way.
The Old Guard is now available to watch on Netflix.
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