Andromache (‘Andy’) of Scythia (Charlize Theron), an immortal, leads a group of other undying mercenaries who have secretly protected humanity for millennia. When they are joined by a new immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), they must contend with their legacy while fighting an evil corporation bent on exploiting their powers.
There’s something old-school about The Old Guard, even as it refreshingly takes its characters in more progressive directions. It’s reminiscent of the late 90s to mid-2000s era of comic-book cinema, when adapting lesser known properties with a post-modern approach to the supernatural was more commonplace. To name a few, Blade, Hellboy, Constantine and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen all shared comic-book roots with a penchant for pulpy fantasy heroics, and director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard has that same feeling in adapting Greg Rucka’s 2017 graphic novel of the same name. Her film shares with the aforementioned movies a fun, contemporary take on myth and legend, all while applying a modern, John Wick-like ‘gun-fu’ approach to action filmmaking. It’s certainly not perfect, but it makes for a slick and entertaining watch with some surprising amount of its own charm to boot.
That ‘charm’ is found in the film’s strange but appealing juxtaposition of cliché and progressivism. All of the genre trappings are here and, despite a few surprises, the plot is comfortably predictable and the characters often fall into recognisable tropes. Contrasting these undeniable clichés, however, is a genuinely modern sensibility toward racial and sexual representation. The Old Guard features two awesome female leads, comprises of a cast made up of mostly non-white actors, and shows two (potentially three) of its five leads as openly gay. This is done without pretence, effectively putting all of the boasting that the team behind Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame did to hype up their (ultimately paltry) LGBTQ+ representation to shame. I can see this making The Old Guard into a favourite for many who feel as though they can’t emotionally connect with the predominantly white, heterosexual, hyper-masculine world of (most) action and superhero cinema. It is genuinely refreshing, done with total earnestness, and elevates all of The Old Guard beyond being just a clone of its forebears.
As well as this, The Old Guard offers some prime action scenes for fans of the genre. Charlize Theron is cemented as one of the best action stars of our time, and as with her committed turns in the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, she is brutally effective here. The film’s stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez has compared Theron to John Wick’s Keanu Reeves in her dedication to the fight choreography (the actress reportedly injured her thumb, elbow, knee, and required three surgeries on her left arm during shooting of this film). The results of this, thankfully, are some tremendous action scenes, with Theron heading some incredibly slick and gorgeously choreographed fights. It helps as well that the film employs a clever narrative point that manages the surprising task of making you worry for these immortals. I won’t spoil it here, but my concern of how I could feel any tension during action scenes that feature undying characters is cleverly subverted.
It’s unfortunate then that, after this praise, I must arrive at The Old Guard’s faults, of which there are some rather damning ones that keep it from being a total home-run. While the action scenes look great, the rest of the film is shot unceremoniously flat, at times looking almost like a TV show. Most egregiously of all, however, is the film’s downright dreadful use of music. Rather than have a consistently orchestral score with a few songs thrown in, The Old Guard embarrassingly uses chart-fodder and electro-pop over pretty much all of its action scenes. It’s as grating and excessive as it is baffling, as the action itself is so well-filmed that to apply such a ruinous audio choice to these visuals in the editing room is maddening. If you aren’t irritated by it early on, you’ll definitely notice the cringe of it all once you get to the final action scene, where a song plays with the lyrics “it’s the end of the world, I’m going down fighting”.
The film is also a bit ideologically confused, and it’s made regrettably worse by our current global situation. There are two primary villains of the film, one who wishes to use the immortals’ powers to heal illnesses and the other who wants to exploit it for their own personal gain. Theron’s character Andy is totally resistant to sharing her immortality with the world, and this refusal to potentially help cure illnesses feels pretty unlikeable as it is, let alone during a global pandemic. The characters do grapple with the idea, and Andy hints early on at why helping mortals is hopeless, but despite setting up this obvious character-arc, they and the story never arrive at a conclusion. It’s odd how the film brings this idea to the table, only to drop it in focus of the nastier villain who wants to use it for evil (and allows the audience less guilt in enjoying the action-filled finale). Thankfully the ending scene is great, and I genuinely look forward to a sequel where this question may well be raised again.
Overall, The Old Guard is good, cheesy fun bolstered by a progressive approach to its characters and awesome action scenes. The music is terrible and the ideology a bit confused, but its charming mix of old-fashioned cliché combined with modern sensibilities (and a delightfully pulpy premise) makes it definitely worth a watch.
Author: Tom, Chelsea Store