Four immortal warriors who have secretly protected humanity for centuries become targeted by a corporate CEO keen on extracting and marketing the key to their mysterious powers—just as a new immortal emerges to join their ranks—in The Old Guard. It’s the latest action thriller from Netflix, starring Charlize Theron, and very much in the same vein as the Chris Hemsworth vehicle Extraction, which the streaming platform r earlier this year. But in this case, The Old Guard is a solid, entertaining action thriller whose individual parts, while strong, don’t quite add up to a compelling whole.
(Some spoilers below, but no major twists revealed.)
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball), the film is an adaptation of the comic of the same name by Eisner-award-winning author Greg Rucka (Lazarus, Wonder Woman), with art by Leandro Fernández (Deadpool, Punisher: MAX). The main protagonist is Andromache of Scythia (Theron), aka Andy, who has been trapped in an immortal life for centuries for reasons that are never explained. The term “immortal” isn’t entirely accurate, since these people do eventually die; one day, in some unforeseen future, their bodies will simply stop regenerating as mysteriously as they started. But by typical human lifespan standards, they’re pretty much immortal.
Along with a few of her fellow immortals—including Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), who once fought on opposite sides during the Crusades—Andy takes on high-risk assignments for well-heeled clients over the centuries. The immortals also face a different kind of challenge: remaining incognito in the selfie-obsessed 21st century, where everyone documents everything. In an early scene, we see Andy offer to take a photograph for a group of tourists—the better to delete one of their images that captures her in the background. “Throughout history, we’ve protected this world, fighting in the shadows,” Andy says. “But it’s nearly impossible to disappear in the world we live in today.”
As Andy begins training a young, new immortal named Nile (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), the immortals faces a new threat. After taking on an emergency mission, their extraordinary abilities are suddenly exposed. This makes them targets for a wealthy businessman named Merrick (Harry Melling) who learns of their existence and wants to gain eternal life for himself. The film also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as Copley, who has been tracking Andy and company’s activities over the centuries for his own mysterious reasons.
Theron is terrific as Andy. Not only is she physically capable of convincing stunt work, and hence is entirely believable as an action hero (cf. Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road), she also brings just the right touch of world-weary resignation to the role. As the oldest of the immortals, she has seen more and lost more than all the others, and she has started questioning whether all those centuries of fighting has had any positive effect at all. “We’ve done nothing,” she tells the group at one point. “The world isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.” A botched mission in Sudan doesn’t improve her mindset.
Layne holds her own as Nile, the newest addition to the group. She is a Marine who gets her throat cut by an enemy combatant on active duty and should have died. Instead, she recovers completely, with not even a scar to show for it. This makes her an outcast in her own unit and a target for military testing until Andy kidnaps her right before she’s transferred. The rest of the cast members give competent performances, too, but they are hampered by thin, underwritten roles that do little more than sketch out their characters. Melling in particular is stuck playing a one-note villain. Even Andy, the film’s main protagonist, only gets a few perfunctory flashbacks as her back story.
What Prince-Blythewood does best here is sketch out the present strong bonds between the immortals. There’s a lovely scene early on where one of Andy’s cohorts gives her a piece of baklava he’s brought from his last mission. She eats it slowly, savoring all the flavors, and correctly guesses he got it in eastern Turkey. It’s a longstanding game between them. The action sequences are well done—although they don’t quite rise to the high-octane levels of those in Extraction—and there are a couple of good plot developments, although events mostly play out as expected. And like Extraction, the film tries to include more thoughtful moments between the action.
So it’s hard to put a finger on precisely why, in the end, The Old Guard doesn’t quite rise to meet its ambitious goals. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen this story of world-weary immortals before (e.g., Highlander and, more recently, Logan), so the obligatory rumination on longevity doesn’t come across as particularly profound or insightful. Or perhaps it’s because, despite portentous foreshadowing, the emotional stakes just don’t seem to be all that high. That said, The Old Guard is still plenty entertaining, even if it isn’t likely to stick with you for long after the credits roll.
The Old Guard is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix