Netflix’s newest action film, “The Old Guard,” is the latest comic-book-to-screen adaptation on the streaming platform. The comics were written by Greg Rucka, who also penned the film, and drawn by Leanardo Fernandez. Published by Image Comics, the original volume began in 2017 and was picked up for adaptation later that year. A second volume, titled “The Old Guard: Force Multiplied,” began its run in 2019.
Notably, “The Old Guard” is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the first woman of color to direct a superhero film. Charlize Theron stars as Andy, born Andromache of Scythia, who leads a group of four pseudo-immortal soldiers. Born to human parents, all were soldiers across history who were killed in combat — but they didn’t die. Today, the group works as a mercenary team, traveling around the world. Matthias Schoenaertes, Luca Maranelli, Marwan Kenzari, Kiki Layne and Chiwetel Ejiofor also star.
Why “pseudo-immortal,” you may ask? Because sooner or later, their clock runs out. Wounds won’t heal immediately, and eventually, they’ll die. Andy discovered so centuries ago when one of her companions was killed in battle. It’s a recurring motif in “The Old Guard”: “Nothing that lives lives forever.” Much of the tension relies on whether or not each wound will be the last.
Almost any question you have about their abilities, the film answers. Do they heal with the bullets still inside them? No, as shown when a bullet shoots itself out of Joe (Kenzari) as his wounds stitch themselves back together. What happens if they drown? Do they just keep drowning over and over again? Yes, as in the case of Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo). She was tried for witchcraft alongside Andy at some point during the medieval era. As they continued to survive every torture attempt, the presiding priest decided to separate them. He placed Quynh in an iron maiden and tossed her to the bottom of the ocean, where she still lies, unable to be found, drowning over and over again.
How did the heroes find each other? When each immortal “awakens,” so to speak, everyone begins to dream until they meet, in order to help them find one another. The dreams aren’t exactly beacons, though. The flashes of information are brief enough that all four of them together have to pool what they remember, and at one point, Joe rushes to sketch a picture before it fades away. It’s apparently enough, since Andy finds the immortal with no problem.
I think my only unanswered question has to do with languages and accents. Booker (Schoenaertes) is French, but his accent is fairly light, while Nicky (Maranelli) is Italian with a much thicker accent. Andy is from Scythia, which is what the Greeks called the central-most part of Eurasia, north of the Arabian Peninsula. She speaks with what I would consider to be a fairly standard American accent. Maranelli is actually Italian, while Schoenaertes is actually Belgian. (French is one of Belgium’s three official languages.) Theron is South African, so she is using an accent. While it’s small, I think the authentic accents add an interesting layer. It makes the immortals seem more out of time and place.
“The Old Guard” spends a lot of time developing their mythology, which is good, but it does so at the expense of fully defining their antagonists, who are much more one-dimensional. It feels like Harry Melling, who plays main villain Steven Merrick, is just re-playing Dudley Dursley. Even the characters who switch allegiances — you’ll have to watch to find out who — do so easily, with little explanation as to why now is the moment to do so.
The same sort of motivation confusion and dimensionality has plagued almost every other superhero or action film I’ve seen, with “Black Panther” being one of the only exceptions I can think of. I think it’s more a failing of the genre than the film’s writing. Had “The Old Guard” been a miniseries of, say, six episodes, though, it might have been able to resolve the issue. Such breathing room would have allowed them to devote time to the mythology and character backstories without sacrificing the pacing.
My favorite part of “The Old Guard” is the relationship between Nicky and Joe. They met fighting in the Crusades, back when they were still Niccolò di Genova and Yusuf Al-Kaysani, enemies. The two killed each other — “many times,” according to Nicky — but eventually fell in love. Today they’re rarely apart, even getting kidnapped together and flirting while being medically tortured, and their banter is adorable. Joe even gets a big romantic speech leading to an equally big romantic kiss. The scene originated from the comics, and Rucka put in his contract that it had to be in the film.
The two get real, actual screen time, are full-fledged characters and get to kick ass alongside everyone else. After the token LGBTQ representation in “Avengers: Endgame” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” Joe and Nicky are a breath of fresh air. The care and attention Maranelli, Kenzari and Prince-Bythewood give the characters raises the bar for future films in the genre.
Another highlight of the film is its action sequences, which are clearly how the film earns its R rating. They are bloody and gruesome, relying on machine guns, handguns, honest-to-God swords and even axes. Rules of ammunition are respected, with the characters paying attention to what’s left in their clips and taking guns off corpses as needed. Andy’s ax is badass and carried around in a case probably meant for an instrument. Perhaps the best part of each sequence is that it’s earned and narratively significant.
If action films aren’t your thing, “The Old Guard” is likely not going to convert you to the genre. It struggles with the same plotting and pacing issues most of them do, and the action scenes include quite a lot of blood and gore. It is still an enjoyable film with a well-executed, gripping idea, strong acting and direction, and a strong sequel hook. It is a win for a good action film you can watch again and again, as well as a win for representation both in front of and behind the camera.