dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood
The Old Guard. It was okay.
If only I was able to restrict myself to a few words, think of all the electrons and storage space I could save. But, when you’re an introvert, the temptation is to never if ever say anything, so if I go with that unhelpful impulse, nary a review would ever get written.
And what a tremendous shame that would be.
Old Guard may be based on a comic book by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, but it’s entirely within the action franchise wheelhouse we all seem to be comfortable with where an unkillable badass kills a whole bunch of people wearing masks and helmets in sometimes inventive ways. John Wick didn’t invent violent action cinema, but it crystalised something, since which every gun action flick draws from the same well.
But it’s not as if Charlize Theron is any slouch in the killfest stakes anyway. She has more than established her action bona fides with Fury Road, and even more so with Atomic Blonde. At this stage seeing her in a film where she doesn’t artfully kill dozens of people seems unnatural.
She is the leader of a group of special people. They are special because they don’t die, or are very hard to kill, until they die or are killed. Andromache of Scythia, as she is known to the scholars, goes by Andy (Theron) these days. She never says outright how old she is, but it’s implied she is many thousands of years old. She doesn’t drink blood or Dior perfume in order to stay ageless, she can’t fly or turn into a turnip – she and her peeps mostly just don’t die when someone tries to kill them. Alternately, they do die, but it doesn’t usually take.
Until it does. For immortals, they mostly mope about wondering what the point of immortality is, though it seems like they did some stuff in the past. The film’s point seems to be if you were an immortal who couldn’t die in combat, naturally, if you met a few others like you, you would devote your life to fighting people where it would usually take an army to do it. But Andy is tired of doing this, after having done it for literal centuries, and not seeing the world be any the better for it.
The chaps who follow her are mostly in the same boat, except one of them, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), is even more depressed than she is. The two other chaps, Joey and Nicky (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) may have immortality, but they also love each other, so they don’t feel as alone and pointless as the other two.
The initial set-up, as unpromising as it is, almost looks like the “one last job” bullshit that a lot of movies start with, but isn’t quite.
A CIA jerk called Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells them there’s a school full of kids that’s been kidnapped in South Sudan, and only Andy and her crew of special soldiers can save them. Save me, Andromache of Scythia, you’re my only hope. The shocking thing is, the job isn’t what it seems, the crew are all killed in an ambush, and even if it’s only a quarter of an hour into the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking the story could just end there.
Everything I said in the above paragraph is an accurate depiction of what happens in the plot. But our heroes don’t stay dead, that’s their thing. So they get up and absolutely waste all the jerks in the room, for the viewing pleasure of the people Copley works for.
It’s a pretty bizarre detour: in this world in which we actually live there are these things people sarcastically refer to as “pharma bros”. In truth I can actually only think of one pharma bro, being Martin Shkreli, who got done for stock manipulation and insider trading, and not for acquiring patents for medicines of long standing use and necessity, and jacking their prices up 700%.
The pharma bro here is a sadistic, googly-eyed twerp who wants to harvest the genetic material of the immortal crew and create very expensive treatments for the people of the world, so he can get even richer and be even more horrible of a human being. He has no problem torturing people, which comes as quite a shock, because I thought the Martin Shkrelis of the world were all about helping people.
It’s an argument a few people put forward, even members of the immortal crew, before the torture starts, presumably. How fair is it that they coast through life like they do, when they too could inflict their empty lifestyle on so many others? Booker, especially, hates his existence and wants it to end, because hundreds of years ago he watched one of his sons die of cancer, unable to help them, but also with them knowing that he was immortal, as they begged for his help, and received none.
It’s a terrible argument, really, and not one worth having in any forum. It didn’t go down so well when the Nazis did it, or the Japanese Unit 731 during the war, performing the worst experiments human minds could conjure on the living, with the pretense that it was for Science! or humanity’s benefit, somehow, and it was as much bullshit then as it would be now or in the near future.
So, naturally, we’re not going to side with the pharma bros on this one, hopefully. I mean, I can imagine someone dumb enough to think of some justification, or someone sociopathic enough, but if they’re that dumb they’re probably not able to operate Netflix anyway unassisted, and if they’re that sociopathic, they’re probably too busy pulling wings off of flies or thinking of ways to disenfranchise voters to watch a film like this.
I haven’t mentioned that, along with these old souls, a new member enters their ranks. Without a new immortal, there’d be no reason for them to tell their backstories, because they already know it, and it would seem awfully contrived to remind each other of stuff they’ve known for hundreds of years.
A US marine in Afghanistan called Nile (KiKi Layne) makes the mistake of respecting the humanity of someone she’s just tried to kill, and she gets her throat slit for her troubles. She does not stay dead for long, and the other members of her unit don’t seem as happy for her to be okay as you’d think they would be.
If someone I cared about nearly died, but didn’t, I’d hardly be angry and affronted by their survival. I’d be like “thank fuck you’re okay”, and maybe wonder a bit more about it, but then I’d move on. Unfortunately for me, I don’t get a lot of representation when it comes to movies, or tv series, or anything, really. And that’s not a function of systemic racism, or sexism, or entrenched anything, really. It’s because there aren’t a lot of roles required in action movies for mediocre people who are mostly agreeable and don’t want to cause a fuss at the best of times. People like me don’t drive plots forward.
So, as we’ve established, Nile’s fellow Marines, who are nothing like me, and shouldn’t be, freak the fuck out and look at her like she’s the spawn of El Diablo. Naturally she has to get away from them before they look at her more condescendingly or find ways to be even more judge-y.
And that’s when Andy kidnaps her.
I can’t explain why, the film doesn’t explain either, but these immortals are linked. They dream of each other, but only when it’s most convenient to the plot. The original crew piece together details of Nile’s resurrection in order to “rescue” her from mundanity or tests from Army doctors, but also they’re meant to be lying low, since they know someone knows what they are.
Nile and Andy hit it off, in that Nile rejects the evidence of her own eyes and senses and decided lashing out at Andy is a better solution to her immediate problems. It makes for a very entertaining close quarters fight on a Russian plane, where Andy and Nile mix it up, but Andy of course doesn’t have to hold back, so she’s happy to instruct Nile in the ways of her new existence by snapping arms and legs etc.
It’s almost body horror stuff, for me, because while I’m glad that these characters, these good guys and girls, heal quickly and don’t die in their pursuit of bad guys presumably, but I can’t help but imagine how much worse their existences would be if instead of instantly healing like Wolverine, they had mangled bones and smashed skulls for all eternity.
Hugh Jackman they’re not, but they do a good job fucking people up nonetheless. Andy particularly seems to enjoy killing people with sword, ax and gun, and she seemed to be smiling during some of the action scenes. Smiling. Tsk tsk. I guess it might be grim work, but it doesn’t hurt to enjoy your divine labours.
Although, during Andy’s last fight, it seems she was dealt a wound that isn’t healing. That’s not very immortal, if you ask me. Does it mean the screenplay has somehow found a way to make immortal people that can’t die, which means there’s almost no risk involved, suddenly vulnerable, so there’s something at stake again? Perish the thought, though I’m sure it might have occurred to screenwriter Greg Rucka, adapting his own story, so I would hope that he’s happy with it, at least.
There is even more to that scene, where she discovers a stab wound on her shoulder that won’t heal, and is a bit baffled as to how she’s going to deal with it. In thousands of years of existence she’s never had to dress a wound, at least on herself. The even better thing about her trip to the chemist, where the cashier offers to help her, is that the offer of help itself, for no gain or reason other than to just help someone, reminds Andy that not all of humanity are scum who live but briefly before noisily exiting stage left or right.
It’s a common theme of these kinds of fantasy stories, whether it involves vampires or not, that immortality is hard. A life stretching out to infinity takes much of the pleasure out of living, and these Old Guard types can’t really be said to be living. They do stuff, sure, and people want them, or need them, but they are cut off from humanity. When Nile comes along, she’s been immortal, to her knowledge, for about a day, so she still has connections to the world, even if her new crew now have to show her all the ways that, for her own good and that of her family, she has to cut them off forever. But most of the time, we’re not really seeing it from the immortal side, we’re seeing it from the newbie’s side of things.
And it’s not a pleasant view. Despite being a soldier, Nile is not down with the way Andy casually tears through a bunch of people, ripping them to shreds. Even after her initial resistance she doesn’t even seem like she can stand most of these people. She doesn’t seem to like any aspect of this life that she never signed up for, and doesn’t seem like she’s going to stick around, preferring to return to the life she knew before. Until, of course, when all the immortals are in the grasp of the tech overlord pharma bro, and she has to save the day.
There might not be a lot of new material, or brand spanking ideas we’ve never seen before, but for an action flick, it does okay. It probably does as well in the quieter dramatic bits as it does in the action sequences, which are taut, well-choreographed and cleanly shot. I am as tired now as I was years ago when legions of masked, helmeted guys became the action norm, but if the sequences are well-managed, and don’t drag on for an eternity (like in the Wick flicks, that no-one seems to want to admit, like it would offend Keanu or the Buddha or something), exhaustion doesn’t set in.
And pharma bro really gets it. Like, really gets it, in the end. Like all of them should. In the neck and then out the window, chumps. Instead of the guillotine when the next revolution comes, it’ll be axe to the neck, then out the window, each and every time.
I enjoyed it. It’s a solid flick. Theron is great like she usually is. KiKi Layne does all right with the newbie role, and shines in the fight scenes. The other guys are also fairly solid. When the couple is captured, and in the back of a van, there’s a great moment where one of the pharma bro’s private security guards makes some dumb comment calling Nicky his “boyfriend” and smirking, and Joey rants back at him about what an infant he is, and about how he couldn’t possibly conceive of what they’ve shared for hundreds of years. And plus how can he be a boyfriend, when he’s ever so old?
Used, of course, as a prelude to a kiss, which freaks out the homophobic guards who try to separate them, only for the crazy couple to do away with them all.
Great scene. Cool film. Didn’t love that it ended right at where a next film would start, but I would probably watch the sequel they’re itching to make. The Old Guard is a decent time-spender in an era where many of us have nothing but time.
7 times if they make this a franchise, they should be killing Big Pharma execs at the climax of every movie out of 10
“I've been here before. Over and over again. And each time the same question. Is this it? Will this time be the one? And each time the same answer. And I'm just so tired of it.” – this is how I felt when they announced the second lockdown – The Old Guard