There’s always something exciting (and more than a little nerve-racking) about a director with a distinctive voice taking on a new film genre. Think Robert Altman doing noir with The Long Goodbye, or Terrence Malick making a war movie with The Thin Red Line. Or, more recently, Taika Waititi tackling a superhero flick with Thor: Ragnarok. So while Gina Prince-Bythewood, previously best known for the sublimely romantic Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, might not seem like the first choice for a comic-book movie about a group of immortal superheroes who’ve been fighting evil for centuries, just a few minutes into The Old Guard you realize what an inspired choice she turns out to be.
And the scene that initially does it — I am not making this up — involves Charlize Theron guessing the provenance of a mysterious piece of baklava. Her character, Andy, once better known as Andromache of Scythia, has been around for about 6,000 years, having fought (and died, and come back) in hundreds and probably thousands of battles all over the world. Along the way, she has been worshipped as a god, burned as a witch, and hung out with Auguste Rodin. But right now, she sits with her small team of fellow ancient warriors (the other three have been around for merely hundreds of years) and plays a parlor game: They give her a piece of baklava; she has to use her eternity of experience to figure out where it’s from. It’s the kind of scene that would be an offhand moment in any other film or played for laughs. (Think the Avengers and their shawarma.) As directed by Prince-Bythewood, however, it’s warm, observant, quiet — and hence immersive. For a minute or so, nothing else matters in the world other than Charlize Theron and that piece of baklava.
Adapted by Greg Rucka, who created the original 2017 comic along with illustrator Leandro Fernández, The Old Guard is filled with such human moments, both frivolous and profound — quiet reveries, declarations of love, dreams about eternity, regrets over families and loves left behind and lost forever — and in the balance of the film, they hold equal weight with the action scenes, because ultimately everything feels connected.
Everybody feels connected too. Unlike the standard superhero team, the Old Guard themselves seem less like a collection of traits and more like real people. There’s a shared despair, largely unspoken, between Theron’s Andy and Matthias Schoenaerts’s Booker, a former Napoleonic army officer: Andy has seen so much loss in her many millennia, while Booker, relatively new to the immortality thing, is still working out his grief; somehow her numbness and his rawness land them both in the same uncomfortable place of wanting out of this life. Meanwhile, Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicolo (Luca Marinelli) are former combatants from the Crusades who are now lovers as well as brothers-in-arms, two men whose passion is fueled partly by the fact that, before they fell for each other, they killed each other over and over again. What an interesting idea that is! And how refreshing that the movie knows it and leans into it. All these characters really do feel as if they’ve known one another for centuries, with all the complexity — the bitterness and sacrifice and loyalty — that suggests. Into this team comes Nile (KiKi Layne), a young Marine who discovers her own immortality in Afghanistan and whose response to her strange new power is, at least at first, a combination of loneliness, confusion, and shame.
When I profiled Prince-Bythewood recently, it became clear that the quality of being present in a scene lies at the heart of all her work. What makes Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights so special isn’t just their romanticism but their patience. The director’s camera diligently observes her characters without rushing them along to the next big narrative or emotional climax. That kind of intimacy obviously comes in handy when you’re telling a love story, but when it’s transferred to the realm of comic books and superheroes, a different kind of alchemy occurs: A supernatural action fantasy starts to feel heartbreakingly real. So even though the plot of The Old Guard isn’t particularly novel — a sociopathic young pharma bro (Harry Melling) with a small private army attempts to harvest our heroes’ powers — we find ourselves deeply invested in their predicament, however by-the-numbers it may look on paper.
That’s not to suggest that The Old Guard doesn’t also kick all sorts of ass in the ways it’s supposed to. The combat has been creatively choreographed, and these men and women really do fight with the kind of speed, fluidity, and inventiveness you might expect from people who’ve been doing so for a long, long time, using cool weapons and cool martial-arts moves you shouldn’t try at home but will probably want to. That the film never has to rely on choppy editing to cover up for bad action is an additional blessing. (It helps, of course, to have Theron, who has already proved herself an elegant cinematic bruiser with roles in Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde.) For all the film’s brooding, it goes down easy. It’s enormously fun, but it won’t give you the kind of candy headache so many other superhero movies do nowadays.
Speaking of which: In ordinary times, The Old Guard (which is produced by Netflix, though a theatrical release was always planned) would have opened in a crowded marketplace that had already seen titles like Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, a ninth Fast & Furious entry (also co-starring Theron), and The New Mutants. There are still plenty of pictures coming out, but since those big comic-book and comic-book-adjacent films have moved off the release schedule, The Old Guard now has an important corner of the market all to itself. Watching it, I don’t miss those other movies with their shared universes and painstakingly built, vigilantly managed worlds. I watch The Old Guard and try to imagine a new world, one where other comic-book movies are this well made and breathtaking.
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