Gina Prince-Bythewood’s fantasy thriller is a dramatic change of tone from her previous work, but you wouldn’t think it. This is a far cry from The Secret Life of Bees, for which she is perhaps best known. Yet after watching this, you would think she had been at the helm of action thrillers her entire career. Based on Greg Rucka’s comic of the same name, The Old Guard can’t go toe-to-toe with the action heavyweight movies of our time (like the John Wick or Fast and Furious Films) but isn’t trying to. Instead, this is a contemplative and interesting adaptation that cries out for more depth, while making the most of what it’s got.
Andy (Charlize Theron) leads a team of immortal mercenaries who are betrayed while out on a job assigned by former CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, somewhat underused in his role). Left for dead, they work to find out who crossed them, and uncover a plot involving dodgy experiments, business greed and some shrewd historical detective work. They also find Nile (KiKi Layne), who has just discovered her immortality and finds herself thrown into the dangerous life led by her new acquaintances.
The Old Guard is an old-fashioned recipe approached with new ingredients. From plucky Americans fighting abroad to a British bad guy obsessed with profit, there isn’t exactly much new (and Harry Melling knows it, his bad guy performance is loaded with caricature). The immortality aspect is new, but it does little to enhance most of the combat – bullet wounds are less dramatic when you know almost all the main characters can’t be killed. What does kill is the superb choreography, with fight scenes throwing you around just as you would hope from a film like this. A brawl on a plane and Andy’s stand in a French church are particular highlights.
Theron is in glorious form as the gun-toting, axe-wielding, vodka swigging Andy, clearly working off the last of her Furiosa energy. Layne is also a standout, and her relationship with Andy is the key relationship in the film. Less impressive is the writing behind their characters. Numerous flashbacks and the odd weighted conversation do little to give the film’s characters any substantial depth. There is an interesting commentary on how the mercenaries can do the most good for the world and what it means to be immortal, but the characters only ever feel like witnesses to this rather than a central part of it.
Some sub-plots also tail off without any real resolution or consequence, instead slowing down a film that badly needs more pace. When the action comes it is fantastic, but sometimes you wait just a little too long for it to come around. Nonetheless, Prince-Bythewood handles the story capably and with great style – it’s easy to see why she will be helming the upcoming Silver Sable and Black Cat movies. Just occasionally the genre lets the film down, leaning too heavily on things we already expect. Still, The Old Guard has the thrills and spills needed to make this an action thriller worth sticking with.
Words by James Hanton