The Old Guard has a great premise: a group of immortal soldiers is targeted by a pharmaceutical company that wants to understand the key to their regenerative powers. At the same time, a new immortal has come into the picture and is acquired by the squad in order to learn their history and join their cause.
Based on a comic book by Greg Rucka (who wrote the screenplay) and Leandro Fernandez, this core idea has a ton of interesting potential to explore as a Netflix movie. However, The Old Guard lives up to its namesake by being a very familiar riff on a conceivably unique idea. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t without a lot of merit.
For starters, the cast is uniformly great. Charlize Theron is one of our greatest living actresses, and she’s managed to parlay that into being an equally strong action heroine. In a lesser movie, she’d shine so much brighter than everyone else around her, but The Old Guard fills out the rest of the ensemble with a cadre of accomplished thespians. There isn’t a weak link in the chain, and that goes a long way with a movie like this.
KiKi Layne is solid as the new immortal Nile and has more going on as a character than just being an audience proxy. It’s very clear that she has a wonderful future ahead of her as an actress. The best of the ensemble are Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli as Joe and Nicky, two immortals that met battling against each other in the Crusades and ended up becoming soulmates. When a captor casually dismisses their relationship, Joe’s reaction is a beautiful and moving rebuttal that showcases the strength of the characters in The Old Guard over the premise.
And while the execution of that premise is something we’re going to get to, The Old Guard still deserves more praise. Specifically, director Gina Prince-Bythewood does a whole lot to make this movie work. Here’s hoping she continues to hone her skills as an action director because she’s got the goods. The same kudos should be lobbed at her editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire, who keeps the flow and clarity of the action crisp. Though the actual choreography is somewhat lacking, the way it’s presented through cinematic language is top-notch filmmaking.
With all that said, The Old Guard‘s worst element is how it decides to unfold its story. For such a wild genre premise, it plays everything very safe and expected. There aren’t any real surprises to be had in the script’s structure and that makes the movie digestible and broad in far less interesting ways. It’s a shame because the pieces are in place to do some truly inventive things with the story, but the movie doesn’t want to break from familiarity and risk doing stranger riffs on itself because it feels the need to be as accessible as possible to its audience.
And that’s not inherently a bad tactic – it’s one that the majority of wide-release films take – but it does tamp down a lot of what’s invigorating about The Old Guard and its core idea. There’s a distinct desire for this not to come off as a blatant Highlander ripoff, but Highlander knew it had to match its story’s oddness in execution for it to achieve its full potential.
It’s that lack of marriage between premise and followthrough that keeps The Old Guard from being exceptional. As it stands, it’s “Sunday afternoon on TNT” okay. And that’s fine! Not all movies need to reinvent the wheel. Many movies are good because they meet a certain level of capability and that’s all they need to do.
It’s a bummer that The Old Guard isn’t more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are well-crafted and enjoyable. The ending of the film promises a sequel that could be a lot bolder and I hope we get to see it. There is a lot more to play with here and it’d be great to see another entry take this premise to its fullest extent. But, for a first outing, this sets a solid (if routine) foundation for a much more audacious follow-up. Fingers crossed we get one.