The Old Guard begins with death. The lifeless and bullet-hole ridden face of Andy (Charlize Theron) lying on the ground. Voice-over narration from Andy indicates that this isn’t the first time she’s been confronted with death. In fact, it’s something she’s so familiar with that she’s become sick of it. Death would become a familiar face to you too if, like Andy, you were an immortal warrior. Andy and her companions Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are all individuals with extraordinary healing powers that have lived for centuries. They’ve fought in all the great historical wars in an effort to make the world a better place.
Such unusual abilities were bound to get the wrong kind of attention. Enter pharmaceutical billionaire Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to capture these four, take them apart and turn their abilities into lucrative medicine. Just as the disillusioned Andy is trying to keep her troops from the clutches of Merrick, a new immortal warrior emerges. Enter Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a U.S. soldier whose throat was slit in combat and then miraculously healed without leaving so much as a scratch. Nile is now a part of Andy’s squad just as Merrick begins to really ramp up his evil plans.
The Old Guard, directed by Gina Prince-bythewood and adapted from a comic book by Greg Rucka & Leandro Fernandez (the former of whom also penned the screenplay for this film adaptation) is trying to do a lot. The most notable subplots are an origin story for Niles and also a separate storyline regarding Andy grappling with her disaffection with her superhuman abilities. It’d be a lie to say all these individual plot elements organically coalesce. Andy’s storyline, in particular, too often takes a backseat, making its supposedly poignant resolution in the final scene of The Old Guard less affecting than it should.
More often than not, though, The Old Guard manages to juggle its various parts reasonably well. Much of this can be attributed to how Rucka’s screenplay isn’t afraid to slow down and just let characters explore each other. Particularly in its second act, The Old Guard has a more character-centric focus that allows even side characters, like Merrick’s head doctor, the chance to explain what’s influencing their actions. It’s an attribute that helps the world of The Old Guard to feel nicely lived-in. There’s clearly a rich mythos in here, but the focus remains on the people inhabiting that mythos rather than just having the plot itself get sucked into all of that lore.
Executing that script is Gina Prince-bythewood, who shows off commendable action movie chops in the director’s chair. Camerawork and editing of the various fight scenes in The Old Guard are always steady, which makes the exciting moments always visually coherent. Best of all for an R-rated action film, The Old Guard delivers some gnarly pieces of violence you could not get in a PG-13 action title. In one particularly memorable grisly shot, Booker, shortly after being ambushed by Merrick’s soldiers, just sits in a big lounge chair with his organs totally visible. It’s a nasty image but one that does convey how extraordinary the gifts of these people are.
Less original than the most gruesome R-rated shots is the backdrops for the various fight scenes, which feel too reminiscent of other action movies. Neither Prince-bythewood’s direction nor Rucka’s direction can make these environments feel all that fresh. In particular, an extended climactic showdown at Merrick’s base of operations makes use of a sterile laboratory setting coated in light blue color grading that could have been plucked from so many other action movies. The Old Guard has a real imaginative streak, including in its groundbreaking depiction of a same-sex couple in an American action movie. It’s a shame, then, that most of the settings for the action scenes remind one of any number of low-budget action films rather than an original personality.
Still, that’s mostly a quibble in a film that manages to deliver the goods in terms of action. The Old Guard also comes with an assortment of memorable performances led by Charlize Theron. A common sight nowadays in action films, Theron lends a sense of believability to Andy’s sense of frustration ensures this character isn’t a retread of her lead roles in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road. I wish KiKi Layne’s Niles got more to do in the middle section of The Old Guard than be a receiver for exposition. Luckily, most of the film gives her a personality to work with and Layne shines there. If Beale Street Could Talk was no fluke, Layne’s an impressive actor that constantly captures your attention. She can communicate such compelling heartbreak too. When she’s portraying Niles wanting to go back and talk to her family, Layne portrays that aching desire so vividly. A supporting turn from the constantly underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor is similarly noteworthy.
The Old Guard isn’t perfect, but Gina Prince-bythewood’s ability to deliver crowdpleaser filmmaking (see her prior movies like Love and Basketball or Beyond the Lights) means the production overcomes its messier and less imaginative aspects. You get characters you like, the action is shot well and Charlize Theron flings axes into faces, Prince-bythewood knows why you clicked play on The Old Guard and delivers a solid version of what you’d expect.