Everyone knows it’s impolite to ask a woman her age, but in the case of Andromache the Scythian, better known as Andy (Charlize Theron), the reason that she won’t reveal hers might just be that she’s lost count of her birthdays. After all Andy has been alive for several millennia. She’s the head of an international quartet of immortal altruistic warriors, the Old Guard; a chosen family comprising herself, the relatively youthful two hundred or so year old Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), and gay couple Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). When we first meet the group in Morocco they haven’t taken on a job for a year and Andy has become seriously jaded, as television screens are filled grim news, she questions the group’s purpose, while new technology makes it increasingly challenging to remain anonymous; “The world can burn for all I care”, she says, “I’m done.” Reluctantly though she agrees to a rescue mission of some kidnapped schoolgirls in South Sudan at the request of former CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor). When things go bloodily awry, it quickly becomes apparent that they were set up. Copley is in cahoots with the ruthless, hoodie wearing “youngest CEO in Big Pharma”, Merrick (Harry Melling), who sees the immortals as nothing more than highly prized lab rats to experiment on and help move him up a few places on the Forbes rich list.
Meanwhile a US Marine stationed in Afghanistan, Nile (KiKi Layne), begins to have potent visions of the Old Guard after she survives what should have been a deadly incident in the field. As Andy tracks Nile down and attempts to persuade her that’s she’s a fellow immortal, some stunning action set pieces stylishly unfurl. It’s a delight to see Theron driving through the desert as a badass again, recalling her stunning turn in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Layne and Theron seriously sell their thrillingly choreographed hand-to-hand combat within the confines of an airborne cargo plane. There’s an acrobatic vibe to their movements that entertains, but crucially we believe it’s the characters fighting one another, not the actors’ stunt doubles. While we still have a few months to wait until we finally see Lashana Lynch as Nomi in No Time to Die, The Old Guard delivers us an all too rare Black female action hero, and Layne convinces with a compelling mix of vulnerable and deadly as the newly minted immortal combatant.
In Nicky and Joe, we get the gay action heroes we’ve been waiting for. The men can more than hold their own in battle as the film’s first mission makes clear and that they are in a very long-term relationship isn’t something that’s coyly hinted at. In fact it’s got to be one of the most enduring same sex relationships ever depicted on screen, as the pair have been together for close to a millennium. These guys didn’t meet on Scruff, but battling one another in the First Crusade. Early on we see the men spooning on a train carriage, and later sharing a bed, but just in case there was any doubt about the bond between them, we see Joe disparagingly questioned by a member of a criminal militia they’ve been captured by who asks “is he your boyfriend?’ What follows is poetic declaration of love, movingly delivered by Marwan Kenzari. Both Kenzari and Marinelli bring an honesty and depth of passion to the scene, some true romance amidst the carnage, until their embrace is pulled apart by some archetypal action movie machismo, but it’s Nicky and Joe whom we care for of course, not their captors. And it’s not the gay couple who are the butt of the joke, the brutes who are laughing at them. It’s a relatively brief but impactful and memorable scene, beautifully handled by director Gina Prince-Bythewood and writer Greg Rucka, whose screenplay is based on his own 2017 graphic novel series. Joe and Nicky’s relationship is casually introduced, they are clearly fully accepted by the rest of the team, and are just allowed to be themselves. The characters aren’t defined by their sexuality, but it is explicitly stated, celebrated even, as a part of who they are. In fact it’s a master class in getting LGBTQ representation right in a mainstream movie and I hope other studios and filmmakers are paying attention.
However with Nicky and Joe restrained and shirtless for some of the movie, the heavy fighting duties are largely left to The Old Guard’s two female action heroes, Andy and Nile. Their front and centre roles are mirrored by the film’s female-led creative team headed by Prince-Bythewood and Charlize Theron’s production company Denver & Delilah, with a crew including co-cinematographer Tami Reiker, editor Terilyn Shropshire, special effects supervisor Hayley Williams, visual effects supervisor Sara Bennett, and costume designer Mary Vogt. Music supervisor Julia Michels has complied a femme fetale of a killer soundtrack and many songs are used in full, but there’s never any danger of the sequences playing out like music videos. Prince-Bythewood doesn’t rely on the tracks, dominated by female vocalists, to propel the action, but the well chosen music, often with lyrics echoing the movie’s themes, infuses the scenes with a brooding, seductive atmosphere.
The frequently handheld camerawork helps ground the movie, and vitally, the action sequences themselves are intrinsic to the narrative and characterisation, and drive the plot forward. As the body count piles up there’s also an acknowledgment of the toll that the taking of human life has on these characters, as well as the pain of seeing their family and friends die while they endure through the ages. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously though and there’s plenty of humour throughout, but the brilliantly cast ensemble all take their roles seriously. There might be an outlandish fantasy element, but the soulfulness of the actors portraying the original four members of the Guard and the poignancy Layne brings to her role mean we’re invested and engaged. Without sacrificing any tension, the film has an unhurried pace that allows us to get to know these well-drawn characters intimately so we care for them when they’re in danger, while the various plot strands remain clear and tight.
As far as the villains go, Copley has more depth and complexity to him than Merrick, who although is certainly sadistic isn’t that menacing in himself. But I guess that’s the point, he has enough money to do whatever he wants, including being a super villain without getting his own hands dirty, and it looks like Harry Melling is relishing playing him. Even though Merrick isn’t all that scary there is nonetheless a real sense of peril, quite an achievement given that the heroes are essentially immortal, and can quickly self-heal however badly wounded, aided by some impressive visual effects. With a potential sequel tantalisingly set up at the end, I hope The Old Guard marks the start of an enduring movie series.
By James Kleinmann
The Old Guard releases globally on Netflix July 10th 2020.