The Old Guard (2020) Review
I’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE!
For the past two decades, comic book superhero of the graphic novel variety has dominated the blockbuster tentpoles of major film studios and yearly release dates; drawing upon the large-than-life heroics for various origin features, solo films, and team-up endeavors. Naturally, the properties of Marvel and DC Comics have been the more prominent usage of this variety; utilizing the likes of Iron Man, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman and many others for large-scale cinematic blockbusters. However, there have been other / lesser-known features films that have been adapted from graphic novel comics such as 2005’s Sin City, 2006’s 300, 2006’s V for Vendetta, 2009’s Watchmen, 2015’s Kingman: The Secret Service, and 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets just to name a few. Now, Netflix and director Gina Prince-Bythewood present the latest graphic novel film adaptation in the movie The Old Guard, based on the graphic novel series of the same name by Greg Rucka. Does this movie shine in the graphic novel spotlight or does it fail under the weight of its own cinematic ambition?
Born hundreds of years ago, Andy (Charlize Theron) is an immortal, living through the ages with a special healing power that makes her impossible to kill. Throughout the centuries, she’s amassed an enormous experience with war, using her skills to build a team of her other immortal individuals, including Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), with the group periodically setting out to fight evil, trying to right the world’s wrongs as they see fit. Trouble is, the world’s continuous influx of power and nations has taken a toil on the unit, leaving the squad fatigued from never-ending battles that must be fought. After making contact with ex-CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Andy’s team is tempted back into service with a job rescuing a kidnapped girl in Sudan, but the mission is a set-up, with pharmaceutical CEO Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) obsessed with claiming the immortals, using their DNA to fuel an anti-aging research for his company. In the struggle of evading Merrick’s goons and Copley’s treachery, Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne), a US marine soldier in Afghanistan, suddenly becomes aware of that she’s not normal and miraculously recovers from a fatal gun shot wound; making Andy and her team aware of a new immortal who is about to join in their fray.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
It’s not doubt that superhero movies are “go to” thing for film studio to make large sums of money for their yearly earnings; snatching up graphic novel rights for the past two decades for massive blockbuster endeavors. Personally, I’ve expressed my interest in graphic novel film adaptations, including the mega popular superhero movies from Marvel and DC Comics, but I also like to see other ones getting their chance to shine; ones that are either a non-serial type of project (Watchmen) or something of a lesser-known property (Kingsman: The Secret Service). Of course, it’s quite interesting how the translation from “page to screen” will be handled (like all adaptations are done) and I’m always intrigued by what changes are done to make it “theatrically” done for a feature film. Thus, despite the almost negative condonation that many have about graphic novel adaptations, I, for one, look forward to the continuation of seeing these projects grow, especially since most have that “larger-than-life” story nuances of heroics and surreal real-world imagination.
This brings me back to talking about The Old Guard, a 2020 action superhero flick that’s based on a graphic novel series. Honestly speaking, I really didn’t hear much about this movie for quite some time. There wasn’t a whole lot of “buzz” on the movie’s website that I frequently visit and I can’t even recall much “hype” for it when the film’s movie trailer dropped online. To be even more honest, I actually didn’t hear about the movie until a few weeks after its initial release date (July 10th, 2020), when I read a few reviews for the movie, which shared thoughts ranging from mixed to positive. However, even though I do own a Netflix account, I kept on putting off watching / reviewing The Old Guard for quite some time. I don’t know why. I just did. So, I did it again and again and again and pushed it all the way to one of my last reviews for the 2020 release year. I actually did finally get to watch the film’s movie trailer right before I watched it and I do have to say that I was quite intrigued by the film’s premise and its action. So, I was down to see the movie and give my “two cents” on The Old Guard (finally, I might add). And what did I think of it? Well, it was good (I’ll give it that), but, while The Old Guard delivers an interesting setup premise and great choregraphed action sequences, the movie struggles with pacing and plotting issues. It’s still a good movie (no doubt about that), I just wished it was more ironed out and presented slightly better.
The Old Guard is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose previous directorial works includes a variety of episodes for TV series as well as several movies such as Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and Beyond the Lights. Glancing at her background on the big and small screen, Prince-Bythewood makes The Old Guard her most ambitious project to date; tackling such a prominent film with several big-name stars and for a Netflix original movie. To that end, I think she did a pretty good job, with approaching the film with a sense of action grit and fantastical superhero aesthetics (yet toned very much down for real world realism). The result is something that definitely works and creates an intriguing premise. Yes, perhaps the most impressive aspect that the movie has to offer is in its story, which was created by graphic novel writer Greg Rucka. The idea of immortal individuals, who have fought and survived the various important battles and wars throughout history, definitely got me hooked immediately and Prince-Bythewood seems to embrace that idea perfectly; puncturing the feature with glimpse of their past lives (via flashback sequences) and battle weary / jaded from experiencing it all. In addition, Prince-Bythewood delivers on the film’s action, especially towards the film’s third act, with many of the film’s immortal characters (Andy and her team) utilizing a lot of various weapons to fight with, including guns and knives as well as swords and battleaxes. Plus, the execution of many of these action sequences are well-choregraphed and presented in a fun way. For the most part, the movie breeds a lot of familiarity, which is both good and bad in this movie (more on that below), but what Prince-Bythewood shapes in The Old Guard definitely works and creates an entertain piece.
For the film’s presentation, The Old Guard is something I would expect from a project like this. That’s not to say that it’s bad or anything, but just something that meets the “industry standard” for this particular endeavor. With the feature’s grounded take on immortal superhero-esque protagonist group, the movie retains a more “real world” aesthetic versus something explosive and / or large-scale blockbuster influences that comes from the larger portion of the graphic novels film adaptations of late. Thus, this whole “gritty” texture definitely grounds the feature and keeps everything “even keel” throughout of which I did enjoy. Plus, the movie does shift its film setting and locations in and out of the film and does offer a slice of an international globetrotting adventure, with a few niffy flashbacks of different time periods that are peppered throughout. Thus, all the “behind the scenes” team members that I customary usually mention in my reviews (i.e., set productions, decorations, costumes, etc.), are all well-met and well-placed for a film of this particular budgetary caliber. Additionally, while the movie does have a few musical soundtrack songs selected in the movie, the film’s score, which was composed by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, is good and offers up glimpses of dramatic moments whether that’s quiet dialogue pieces or action adrenaline scenes.
However, despite an interesting concept, The Old Guard falters in its execution and is held back from reaching its goals and cinematic glory. How so? Well, for starters, the movie just doesn’t feel like a movie and that’s one of my biggest pet peeves about the project. What do I mean? It’s kind of hard to explain this aspect perfectly (if you know what I mean), but, for lack of better words, the film doesn’t have that “cinematic” quality that one who find in a feature film of this variety. Yes, what’s presented works, but not quite enough. The way how everything is shot, presented, and executed all feels like it’s part of a TV series (a good and high quality one mind you), but a TV series none the less and not like a theatrical feature film endeavor. So, all the cinematography and camera working all feels pretty “meh” and I kind of was expecting something a bit more. Speaking of a TV series, I personally think that The Old Guard should’ve been series on Netflix rather than a movie, especially since it would’ve allowed for the narrative to be stretched out (exploring backgrounds, character development, and plot points) in a way that’s not confined to a feature film. Yes, that can be argue that can be done for almost any project, but I story definitely has potential to be expanded upon (even a sequel film would be nice).
Still, the movie struggles in trying to project what it wants to convey and does so in a very meandering way, which (naturally) brings up my next point of criticism…. the pacing. The film’s pacing is quite horrible and does really hamper the viewing experience. The first half of the movie is basically an expositional dumping ground to help further explain several backstories of Andy’s team, which is cool, but slows the film’s pacing down and creates a lot of “boring” moments where characters are just sitting around and talk. Character growth is important, but not at the expense of film’s pacing. This part on the film’s direction, with Prince-Bythewood lacking in creating a tight film, as well as the film’s script, which (again) is done by Rucka himself. There’s just something strange about this project that I can’t quite put my finger on. All the ingredients are there, but it all doesn’t gel the right way. A few times it does and definitely works, but not always and does hinder the feature. Additionally, the movie can’t overcome its shortcomings of predictable narrative beats and cliches; generating a somewhat predictable / formulaic path that’s kind of easy to see where the film’s story / characters are gonna end up. Also, there seems to be large setup for a future installment, which I am looking forward to. However, the setup takes a large scene to display (via flashback sequence), which (again) is good, but seems quite shoehorned into the movie; making its placement in the movie a bit awkward and only to serve a setup for another film.
Naturally, cast for The Old Guard does a pretty good job in making these respective characters come alive and help elevate the movie from those problematic areas mentioned above. The downfall, however, is that some of the script handling for these characters gets messy, with some getting more screen-time and better character development than others. Leading the charge and headlining the feature is actress Charlize Theron, who plays the role of protagonist leader Andy (or rather Andromache). Theron, known for her roles in Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Snow White and the Huntsman, has proven herself to be a capable actress that’s quite fitted for either the main antagonist role (see Snow White and the Huntsman and The Fate of the Furious) as well as the badass female action hero (Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road). In the case of The Old Guard, Theron channels the latter theatrical persona; drawing upon the badass character with just enough battle-hardened aloofness and skilled “kick-ass” culmination in her portrayal of Andy. Though the character might play upon the commonplace characteristics of her past roles as well as similar characters of a female action lead, Theron is terrific and definitely plays a pivotal role in making The Old Guard enjoyable / memorable. Personally, I loved her in the movie!
Behind Theron, actress Kiki Layne, known for her roles in Captive State, Native Son, and If Beale Street Could Talk, does a good job in playing the part of Nile Freeman, a US Marine that becomes the newst recruit in Andy’s team of immortals. Like Theron’s Andy, the character of Nile is pretty much the straightforward architype persona of the “new recruit” platform; offered as a way for us (the viewers) to understand how things work and seeing everything with a set of fresh new eyes in this world of immortal beings. It’s definitely a proven character path as the movie sees the progression of her character as the film goes on. That being said, it’s nothing really original and has been done many times before, with Nile being jumbled together with pretty much any similar protagonist character than has followed down that same path. Still, like Theron, Layne delivers a solid performance in the role.
The other main players in the movie, including Matthias Schoenaerts (The Danish Girl and Red Sparrow) as Booker / Sebastian Le Livre, actor Marwan Kenzari (Murder on the Orient Express and Aladdin) as Joe / Yusuf Al-Kaysani, and actor Luca Marinelli (Trust and Martin Eden) as Nicky / Nicolo di Genova, make up the rest of Andy’s team of immortals. Like the character of Andy, these three immortals are like her; battle hardened and each giving a different personality to make them memorable in the movie (be it dialogue moments or importance to the narrative). To me, I liked these three characters and, while they might be simple supporting players in the main part, definitely added some fun and well-roundness to the group. Plus, I like how they came from different time periods and offers up a different looks in their past lives and in culture.
Beyond the main group of The Old Guard protagonist characters, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is good in the role of James Copley, a former CIA agent who Andy and her team gets entangled with for the bulk of the film’s story. Known for his roles in 12 Years a Slave, Doctor Strange, and The Martian, Ejiofor has proven himself to be a capable actor in his various roles of the past and probably seems like the secondary “big ticketed” star of the movie after Theron. To his credit, Ejiofor is solid in the role of Copley and I really did like him in the character. However, the film’s script doesn’t know what to do with him and he kind of gets pushed aside for portions of the movie, including the third act. Thus, despite Ejiofor’s involvement on the project, the character of Copley seems more like an afterthought. As a side-note, actress Ngo Thanh Van (Da 5 Bloods and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) gives a small yet effective in the role of Quynh, an immortal ally from Andy’s past.
The other villainous supporting players in the movie, including actor Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Queen’s Gambit) as the wealthy CEO of a pharmaceutical empire Steven Merrick, actor Joey Ansah (The Bourne Ultimatum and Snow White and the Huntsman) as the head of Merrick’s security force Keane, and actress Anamaria Marinca (Europa Report and Fury) as Merrick’s scientist colleague Dr. Meta Kozak, give decent performances in their roles. Granted, they’re acting talents are not in question, which all of them give good acting talents (respectfully), but rather the film’s story / script limits their characters to being one-dimensional baddies and follows common tropes of villainous antagonists (i.e., the main weasel-like bad guy, the main security enforcer goon, and the cold-hearted scientist), especially since the movie doesn’t have the time to develop their personas beyond their initial setup.
After countless years of battles and fighting to save the world, Andy and her group of immortals discover a new plot to eliminate them, while trying to nurture a new recruit in harnessing her newfound abilities in the movie The Old Guard. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film takes the graphic novel source material by Greg Rucka; making for an intriguing superhero movie that’s grounded in realism yet also feels a tad fantastical in its own right. While the movie does struggle in attempts, especially with pacing issues, expositional dumps, and lacking a certain cinematic quality, the film does succeed in crafting an interesting story, well-choregraphed actions scenes, and a likeable main cast of characters. Personally, I thought that this movie was good. Yes, it did have its faults and could’ve been better, but, for what it’s worth, I enjoyed the film. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a comfortable “recommended”, especially those looking to distract themselves for two hours and looking for something to watch on Netflix. With the film’s conclusion ending on a setup for a sequel, the idea for The Old Guard 2 is promising and one could hope that the project gets greenlit. I just hope that the movie’s next chapter is a bit more ironed out than this particular one. Regardless, The Old Guard, despite its predictable nature and pacing issues, delivers on its action premise and intriguing story to make the viewing experience entertaining. It may not be the best Netflix movie or graphic novel film adaptation out there, but I think its definitely one that’s worth a look.
3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: July 10th, 2020
Reviewed On: January 18th, 2021
The Old Guard is 118 minutes long and is rated R for sequences of graphic violence and language