Charlize Theron is a badass superhuman demigod whose actions make the world a better place. And in Netflix’s The Old Guard, she also plays one. Netflix Original films can run the gamut from the brilliant to the mercifully forgettable. With The Old Guard, based on the comic book series of the same name from screenwriter Greg Rucka, they deliver an action-packed tour de force that breathes new life into the superhero genre. Eschewing the cartoony spectacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the brooding melancholy of the DC Series of Nonsensical Disappointments, it provides an adult take on childhood fantasies that is light on flashy effects, but heavy on brutal, close-quarters action.
The film opens with an empty magazine and a shower of spent cartridges falling to a body-laden floor. Andy (Theron), one of the bodies in question, muses on her current predicament, saying “I’ve been here before. Over and over again, and each time the same question: Is this it?” The “here” in question is South Sudan, where former CIA James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hires Andy’s team of mercenaries to rescue a group of kidnapped children from a remote terrorist compound. Of course, this is no ordinary team of mercenaries. In case that wasn’t clear from the fact that they carry swords and axes into battle alongside their assault rifles and C4, it becomes abundantly clear when the rescue mission turns into an ambush, during which Andy’s team is thoroughly killed with a minimum of effort and a maximum of bullets. However, the ambush party’s victory is short lived when it becomes clear that the real “here” in question was “lying dead in a pool of my own blood.” Andy leads a team of ancient, immortal warriors with regenerative healing powers and a penchant for doing the right thing, or whatever seems like the right thing at the time. When their corpses come back to life once again, pushing the slugs from their open wounds like a team of angry Wolverines, the quickly dispatch their attackers with ease and violence.
It is unclear where these powers came from, or why these individuals were chosen to shoulder the burden, but they are psychically linked and instinctively drawn to each other. Andy is the oldest of the group, though like a true lady, she never reveals her age. Joe and Nicky (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) are a couple who fought each other during The Crusades before falling in love and vowing to spend the rest of their incredibly long lives together. The four person crew is rounded out by Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), a former French Soldier who fought under Napoleon. No new immortals have been discovered in over two hundred years, until Nile (Kiki Layne), a US Marine in Afghanistan, survives a deadly attack, and is recruited to join the team. Nile is reluctant to believe the truth, but comes around quickly when Andy dispenses with the usual drawn out Superhero Origin Story and simply shoots her in the head and breaks most of her bones to make the point with refreshing expedience.
Being immortal isn’t all fun and games. The group is being hunted by CEO and Pharma Bro Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who bears a striking resemblance to Martin Shkreli while somehow managing to be even less appealing. Merrick wants to learn the secret of their longevity so he can advance modern medical science while making a boatload of money in the process, and he isn’t afraid to send waves of hopelessly doomed soldiers into battle to achieve his goals.
These action sequences are where the film really shines. With no superpowers beyond their extreme longevity, the characters have spent centuries honing their real-world combat skills, and it shows. Whether through hand-to-hand combat, rapid-fire shootouts, or a good old fashioned axing, the expertly choreographed fight are fluid, precise, and flat out breathtaking. More importantly, they never feel like obligatory diversions from the main story, but serve as an integral part of that story, moving things along in bursts of tight, energy-filled carnage.
In between these moments of excitement, story remains engaging thanks to the interesting characters and stellar performances. Andy’s team carries the weight of their age with a weary confidence that comes from an extended lifetime of isolation, guilt, and survival. Nile experiences those same feelings for the first time from her fellow Marines when her miraculous recovery is met with uneasy gazes of mistrust. Theron and her costars infuse every scene with this heaviness as they grapple with memories of fallen comrades, their uncertain purpose, and a modern world where it is virtually impossible to truly disappear. Plus, the simple, matter-of-fact inclusion of openly gay superheroes is a refreshingly overdue change of pace that makes the film as important as it is entertaining.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars.
The Old Guard tells a more grounded, realistic story than one typically sees from the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. With intense action, compelling characters, and a pervasive sadness, the film overcomes the clichés of the superhero genre, even when it makes use of them. The film will appeal to fans of comic book movies, action flicks, and war films alike, while maintaining enough heart to win over new converts as well.