I love that Gina Prince-Bythewood makes movies. She has a way of capturing a certain type of aching found in the human spirit. Here, the ache is existential; one that comes from getting lost in the moment and failing to see the bigger picture.
The Old Guard is a superhero movie based on a graphic novel, co-written by Greg Rucka who also wrote the film’s script. The script has a rare maturity embedded in the narrative bones of the film. Unlike the MCU and much of the WB/DC, it has patience about its material and a reflective attitude towards the lives of its characters.
Considering production for The Old Guard started in May of last year, it is entirely by happenstance that Prince-Bythewood has made a movie emblematic of our times. The doomed fatalism and nihilistic musings of Charlize Theron’s Andy seem perfect for those of us suffering from stress, anxiety, fear, and confusion amidst the eternal stretch of COVID-19. Andy’s dour attitude and skeptical outlook on the world befits a woman who been alive so long it seems as if she’s been alive forever.
“Nothing is better,” she confides to her friends. Andy, along with Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), fellow immortals who fight for worthy causes. Rucka’s script wisely avoids long swaths of exposition and world-building by having his characters be as much in the dark as we are.
No one knows why they are immortal only that they are not really immortal. They can die, but again, no one knows why. They only seem immortal though when you live for hundreds of years, or in Andy’s case, thousands, you might as well call yourself immortal. “When it’s your time, it’s your time.” Rucka wisely does not make Andy and her team super strong, fast, or give them any kind or other power really-except their seemingly eternal indestructibility.
Prince-Bythewood and Rucka show us the psychological and emotional toll that accompanies being able to outlive most civilizations. They do so by introducing a new immortal Nile (Kiki Layne). Again, no one knows why a new one has been born, they just know she has and needs someone to guide her.
A Marine who was recently killed in Afghanistan, both Nile, and her fellow squad members are understandably confused as to how she is up and walking around. They are even more confused about how her wound has vanished. After all, this is not a world where superheroes are an everyday occurrence.
Prince-Bythewood works with two camera people, Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd. The result is the rare action movie free of the male gaze while also being gorgeously shot. Reiker and Ackroyd find a balance between gloomy melancholy and muted optimism.
The trio manage to choreograph the many fight scenes much in the same way as the John Wick movies. Unlike most mainstream big-budget action movies which prefer to have its action be a mass of green screen and camera cuts, Prince-Bythewood has gone the route of making it all seem like a dance. Reiker and Ackroyd frame the fights in a way that allows for smooth motion. Theron punches, ducks, shoots, and glides as if she was Ginger Rogers, without the heels.
Theron isn’t alone though. Layne matches her step for step, as well as Schoenaerts, Kenzari, and Marinelli. All hold their own and are as graceful as Theron as they take bullets, knives, and fists, and keep on moving forward. Quite frankly if this is a trend then it is a trend that I am all aboard for if only because it demands wide shots and pans allowing us to see the actor’s body as they move and get a sense of the fullness of the style and efficiency of the stunt work.
That Theron is good, is no surprise. But Theron’s Andy, or Andromache of Scythia to you, is possibly the most fleshed-out fully realized character of all her action star roles. Furiosa maybe the only other one, but Furiosa is an iconic role that will forever define Theron in one way or another.
Layne holds her own against Theron’s magnetic charisma and well-practiced and well-worn movie star presence. The two work off each other so nicely and so entertainingly that not only do I want to see more of Andy and Nile in other movies but I find myself wanting to see the Layne and Theron in a buddy comedy. Perhaps in some wacky, if a little contrived, road trip movie where a much-needed trip to get away from it all goes haywire.
But I digress.
Refreshingly The Old Guard isn’t about the end of the world, the destruction of a small town, or even the invention of some kind of galactical annihilator. It is instead about Nile coming to terms with her new eternal life and saving Andy from despair. The final battle isn’t a showdown so much as a rescue and reconciliation.
Andy and her friends don’t fear death, as another screenplay would have more than likely have them be. Instead, Rucka has them tell a story about another member of their group, a woman, Quynh (Veronica Ngo) who was captured along with Andy during the Salem Witch trials. Quynh was buried in an iron coffin and plunged into the depths of the ocean, forced to spend eternity dying and resurrecting with no hope of escape, at the bottom of the sea.
The immortals do not fear death, they fear imprisonment.
Booker’s story about the fate of Quynh haunted me. Prince-Bythewood makes it so we can feel the walls closing in on our heroes. James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a CIA operative who hunts down Andy and her friends. He’s working for Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), the head of Merrick Pharmesucticals. We can feel the mounting tension as one by one the immortals find themselves strapped to a table facing their worst fear, captivity.
I hope I haven’t made The Old Guard sound dreary or depressing. For starters the romance between Nicky and Joe is sweet. Queer romances are often doomed in movies but I’m happy to report that Nicky and Joe make it out both alive and still as in love as ever.
One scene as the two handcuffed in a swat car while the officers essentially mock them for their tenderness and queerness. Joe gives a speech which he punctuates with a searing kiss to Nicky. The kiss so unsettles the policemen they struggle to pull the two men apart. Cut to the outside of the car, it is stopped, and Andy, Nile, and Booker have arrived to rescue them. Opening the swat car door, they see the policemen knocked out and Joe and Nicky embracing.
The celebration of gay love and beating the snot out of fascists is one hundred percent my jam. Combine that with Nile and Andy’s burgeoning mentorship/friendship and you have a fraction why I love this movie. So many superhero movies are big and loud and ultimately about so very little.
The Old Guard is an intimate action movie that isn’t afraid to ponder its grand ideas even as it is equally unafraid to kick ass and beat down dehumanizing corporate slime. That Prince-Bythewood is able to go back and forth without seeming to shift gears is a talent but that she manages to let both us and the characters breathe and take it all in, is a well-honed skill.
While tracking down their kidnapped friends, Andy and Nile begin to confide in each other. Andy admits she no longer remembers what her mother, or sisters, looked like. Nile, meanwhile, mourns the fact that she can never return home. As she tells Andy about her mother and how she raised both her and her brother by herself. Andy nods. “You come from a family of warriors,” “Yeah,” Nile replies. Her voice shaking as she realizes the truth of the statement.
These moments litter the framework of The Old Guard. Being an immortal forces Andy and her friends to live apart from the world, only meddling when they think they have a moral imperative to do so. But much like George Bailey, Andy only sees what’s in front of her and is blind to the lives she has touched and the differences she and her friends have made.
Prince-Bythewood looks at her heroes with tenderness and empathy allowing their pain and joy to come through with their words and deeds. If all superhero or comic book movies were like this, I would not be so weary of them. The Old Guard reminds stuffy old men like me that there is hope both in the genre-and the world. The latter was the most startling revelation.
It’s easy to think the world is falling apart and nothing we do is of any consequence. But take a step back and you’ll begin to see the goodness in the world. The Old Guard reminds us that perseverance is a superpower all its own and it is a trait that those who wish to quash it, fear the most.