Imagine X-men’s Wolverine clawlessly playing the Highlander… and he was a team.
When ex-CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hires a clandestine group of never-fail mercenaries for a time-sensitive rescue mission, leader lady Andy (Charlize Theron) reluctantly agrees to take the job. For more years than she can count, she and her compatriots Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) have fought secret battles against evil only to watch the world dishearteningly descend further into chaos. When Copley’s mission suddenly goes south, it reveals Andy’s team for what they are and the secret to their success: their fatal injuries heal almost instantly, and when one has lived many lifetimes, one can become highly experienced in ways to destroy mortal opponents. Desperate to contain further exposure, the hunt for their vile betrayer is interrupted by Nile (KiKi Layne), a deployed U.S. Marine struggling to understand how she survived a fatal wound without so much as a scratch.
There are plenty of comic book heroes whose power is simply being long-lived; Ms. Theron played a similar part before in Will Smith’s Hancock, immortals once mistaken for gods, but with superpowers and everything. While that film had its own issues, The Old Guard rings truer of stories like Highlander, in that the only special skill is the undying part and eternity to learn from your mistakes. Instead of the old trope about immortals all trying to destroy one another for a nebulous prize or something, these mercs seem to have a higher purpose, particularly in that they sense one another and are drawn together. Is it fate, karma, or something else that brings our so-called heroes together, and how how well will the source material translate into a multi-part Netflix film franchise?
Based on the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka illustrated by Leandro Fernandez, this is clearly a first planned installment of many. While it doesn’t spend too much time world building until it forgets itself — here’s looking at you, Iron Man 2 — it also doesn’t distinguish the importance of what’s current so much as what’s coming, including a mid-credit teaser that might have worked better as an actual denouement. The big-pharma “bad guys” are sadly two-dimensional, the worst being their private army’s underwear-model team leader. Fortunately, the camaraderie between characters and backstory details are organic enough to carry the weight of Theron’s brooding until she can start kicking ass ala Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, and that’s when it gels together.
One significant underlying theme among immortal stories is love and loss, particularly outliving everyone you know and who knows you. The Old Guard pitches purpose above all, hinting that warriors may be intentionally gifted for such a higher purpose. While half the introduced team dwell upon loss, the more interesting relationship between Joe and Nicky is its love-conquers-all theme, particularly that they are whole when together. Whether fighting together or captured together, their bond feels eternal, the kind of relationship everyone should want but few achieve let alone work for. This isn’t to suggest that lovers is all they are — they’re capable ass-kickers fully confident in their abilities — but it’s refreshing to see characters like this since screenwriters seem to prefer angst and falling in love to mature relationships.
A lackluster villain also hampered Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider reboot, so while it’s forgivable, both films crutch for the “Just wait: next time we’ll have a bigger and better big bad to defeat!” ending. More comeuppance might have been nice, but the film knows when to linger on details and when to gloss over them, keeping the runtime tight and entertainment value high. While this could have served as a two-part series opener, keeping the concept to film installments that follow the graphic novels gives the production time and budgets between parts, as what gets set up is definitely worth looking forward to.
The Old Guard is rated R for sequences of graphic violence, language, and “the world can burn for all I care.”
Three skull recommendation out of four