The Old Guard review: Netflix offers a welcome twist on the superhero film

·3-min read
Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX
Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX

Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood. Starring: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor. 15 cert, 124 mins.

It’s no wonder that Hollywood’s obsessed with superheroes – now, more than ever, we crave the assurance that our world will (and can) be saved. The immortal warriors of Netflix’s The Old Guard, adapted by writer Greg Rucka from his own graphic novel series, must wrestle with these expectations. Why is it that we cling so firmly to the idea that Superman will swoop in and fix all of our problems?

Our heroes have all died before, only to discover that, in their case, the condition isn’t permanent. Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron), the oldest of the warriors, is implied to be the legendary Amazonian who battled Heracles – and lost. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) fell in the Napoleonic Wars. Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are now lovers, but were once on opposing sides of the Crusades. They are trapped now in a cycle of death and resurrection. Bullets are absorbed and then repelled. Bones shatter and reform.

But they are exceptional only in their supernatural resilience – a gift that’s arrived without purpose and, as experience has shown, can be taken away without warning. When a new member (KiKi Layne’s Nile, a steady and compassionate presence) joins their ranks, she must wrestle with the team’s own disillusionment. They’ve fought for the oppressed for centuries, but now can’t imagine a future where their help won’t be needed. Their work is interminable. There’s no arch-villain they can defeat to save humanity once and for all. “The world isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse,” Andromache tells her companions. Her words are laced with disdain.

In fact, all blustering talk about “saving mankind” is reserved for their adversary, Merrick (Harry Melling, playing Martin Shkreli if he went to Eton), a big-shot pharma CEO who developed a breakthrough cancer treatment and now thinks the immortals are key to extending humanity’s lifespan – even if that means keeping them in a cage for the rest of eternity. He argues it’s a moral obligation, though Melling’s deranged, s***-eating grin hints at the self-interest and greed that lie behind the curtain.

The Old Guard doles out a few lessons in grittiness, proving it’s not just about delivering washed-out aesthetics, but moral weight. It’s mature and sincere – a comic book film that’s neither a quip-fest, nor a humourless bore. It places its LGBT+ characters front-and-centre in a way that instantly puts the rest of the genre to shame. Joe, at one point, delivers a swoon-worthy ode to undying love, ending with the words: “He’s not my boyfriend… he’s all and he’s more.”

The film, confined to a mid-level budget, doesn’t strive for epic scale; it draws instead from the brutal, bloody intimacy of the John Wick franchise. Theron, here as in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road, fights like a finely tuned machine but finds tenderness between the punches. The camera excitedly hurries after her as she storms through modernist offices, abandoned buildings, and muddied battlefields.

None of this would work without someone like Gina Prince-Bythewood behind the lens. She’s a director who can slip so easily between genre fare – having worked on Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger series and a now-scrapped Spider-Man spin-off, Silver and Black – and the tender romanticism of 2014’s Beyond the Lights. Thanks to her, The Old Guard’s pivotal scene is also its more serene. It’s a moment of wordless understanding between Andromache and a young pharmacist, who tends to her wounds without question or judgement. Our hero comes to the realisation that, not only does she do good, but she empowers others to do the same. So can we, Prince-Bythewood tells us.

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