Review: THE OLD GUARD, New-School Action That Packs A Dramatic Punch
None of us know how or when we're going to die, just that, one day, something will end our life. Imagine taking that to an extreme: you're going to be young and beautiful for a very long time (good), you'll immediately regenerate from any injuries (great); but you'll live centuries, possibly millenia, until one day your body just stops healing itself, and that's the end (maybe not so good). What would you do with that time? How would you exist without being discovered?
Thus begins the premise of The Old Guard, the graphic novel series turned action film (and hopefully franchise). With a small but dedicated band of nearly-immortal humans, their new recruit, and a world full of people that constantly need saving. Written by the graphic novel's author Greg Rucka, and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it's a rare treat of an comic book-action film, one that treats its subject and characters with the weight they deserve while giving the audience some excellent and often breath-taking fight scenes.
The premise can be gleaned pretty easily from the trailer: Andy (Charlize Theron), formerly Andromache of Scythia, was alone for hundreds of years before she found others like her. With her team - Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari), who discovered and have loved each from the Crusades, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) found during the Crusades - they fight in whatever war and conflict for the side they think is right (no mention if perhaps sometimes they made a mistake). Such is their knowledge of time that Andy can guess the origin of a baklava within a few miles; such is their comfort with each other that few words are necessary. They know the world isn't getting any better, but still, fighting is better than doing nothing, so they resign themselves to their strange fate.
Or so it seems at first. A mistake of sympathy - the alleged rescue of kidnapped girls - gets the group noticed by those who would take advantage of them. At the same time, they discover another of their number exists. Andy sets of to Afghanistan to locate Nile (KiKi Layne), a US Marine, whose instantaneously-healing slit throat has already made her a target. Now they're all on the run from Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has been tracking the group for years, and his financial backer Merrick (Harry Melling), who will stop at nothing to learn the secrets of Andy and the other's very long lives.
For Nile, the discovery of her 'power' is one of denial and shame. The denial is understandable, but Layne plays the shame to make us understand how it would be to know that you're going to outlive everyone you love, that any connections you have will be gone, and that, more than likely, your loved ones will grow to hate you, that this god-like power is unearned. Theron and Layne are terrific together; Andy is like a cranky old grandmother, (almost) completely tired of everyone's shit and having, yet again, to explain how it works to a young Brat. But Nile is a quick study, already trained as a soldier, wanting to know everything far too fast yet can absorb it even faster.
This is a film that I'm very sad I couldn't see for the first time on a big screen; Prince-Bythewood trusts her audience to pick up the necessary expositional material quickly, with sweeping shots, a few words to set up the scene, allowing more time for the story, and of couse, the amazing action. Prince-Bythewood, her stunt team, and editor Terilyn A. Shropshire (Eve's Bayou, When They See Us) give us fight scenes, both fist and gun, that are smooth as silk, seemingly seamless yet crafted to fit with these characters. These are people who have been fighting for hundreds (in Andy's case, thousands) of years. They *invented* every trick in the book, they have the time to get to know every weapon, every defense strategy, and can anticipate (almost) any move made against them.
It's that balance of story and action that sets this film apart from a lot of comic book films, it carries far greater introspection on the responsibilites of those with power, as well as the ridiculous burden we place on them, when we so often prove ourselves undeserving. The human moments, as when Booker tells Nile of the pain and grief of loss that never ends; Joe and Nicky's profound love that only grows richer by the century; Andy's resentment of how the good they have done seems to have amounted to nothing. Copley is that one of us who so wants to the good to happen, to save us all from pain, that he is blind to even the most obivous cooke-cutter villain. Andy feels like her time has been wasted, and it takes someone like Nile to remind her that while her power might be filled with grief, there is satisfaction to be had in doing something right.
Setting up what will hopefully be at least one more film (maybe a franchise if we're lucky), The Old Guard proves there's life yet in comic book adaptations, when you get different faces behind the camera to breathe new life in what was fast becoming a stale genre.