The last caps and cartridges fall to the floor. A pile of butchered bodies lies in the middle of a dark room where an eerie silence now reigns. The narration of one of the victims suggests that this is not the first time that the squad has been involved in a similar situation. She asks herself with a hint of tiredness and hope: « will this be the occasion? » However, its time has not yet come. So it starts The old guard, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández, which serves as an effective prologue to the exceptional group of apparently immortal ancient warriors seeking to lead their own franchise on Netflix. A film that prioritizes the construction of its characters and spreads the journey with admissible action sequences.
While the concept of immortality and its curse for its wearers is far from unexplored terrain in fiction, The Old Guard has enough elements to feel fresh and resourceful. Charlize TheronA quintessential heroine of contemporary action cinema, she plays Andrómaca de Escitia (or simply ‘Andy’), a warrior with millennia of longevity who has been involved in some of the most important war events in history. A woman who has eventually lost all those she has loved – the memory of Quynh still tortures her (Veronica Ngo), another immortal whom she could not save from a tragic fate–, in addition to living disappointed by the inability of society to evolve after so many sacrifices.
Despite everything, Andy managed to recruit other immortals through the centuries. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) comes from the period of the Napoleonic Wars, while Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) met and fell in love after facing each other on opposite sides during The Crusades. Today, the team operates as mercenaries and are hired by Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former CIA agent, to rescue kidnapped students in South Sudan. This mission places them in Merrick’s sights (Harry melling), president of a large pharmaceutical corporation, determined to hunt them down and experiment with them to discover the secret of immortality. The lack of tension that could stem from his supposed invulnerability is solved with a brilliant addition to mythology that calls into question his survival.
Gina Prince-BythewoodBest known for intimate dramas like Love and Basketball (2000), The Secret Life of Bees (2008) or Beyond the Lights (2014), prove here why Sony had been the choice to take over the direction of Silver & Black. The old guard never sets out to be a show riddled with visuals or ever-larger-scale sequences. It is indeed a comic book film and an action film, but the core of the story is much more contained, at least in this initial installment. The filmmaker easily sidesteps sporadic and explosive head-to-head combat and armed clashes that are competently choreographed, all within an international adventure that also includes sequences in the Middle East, France and London.
However, the true feature of the feature film lies in Gina’s stamp for characterization, as it gives the talented cast the time necessary to show off their on-screen chemistry and build links with the audience, based on the subtle exchanges, the silences and moments of introspection in a film loaded with a melancholic atmosphere, accentuated by the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd (recurring contributor to Paul Greengrass) and Tami Reiker (High Art). Particularly notable is the relationship that Andy and the rising star build Kiki Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), extraordinary in the role of soldier Nile Freeman, the new recruit of The Old Guard.
The script adapted by Greg Rucka himself remains faithful to the structure and heart of the original material. One of the main virtues in the work of the multi-award-winning comic book author, who has worked with basically all the famous characters from DC Comics and Marvel publishers, is his ability to play with the conventions of the genre and establish a balance between the most absurd elements and cartoony of their stories, with a reading more focused on human drama and grounded in the ‘real world’. The film version of The Old Guard retains and deepens those emotional conflicts that were somewhat limited by the pages in the print: the vicious cycle of violence, the scars of war or the feeling of loss, among others.
Music deserves a separate mention. Inside the soundtrack consisting of Volker Bertelmann (A way home) and Dustin O’Halloran (Transparent) techno rhythms predominate, reinforcing the feeling of trance and constant self-reflection among the characters. On the other hand, the peculiar selection of musical themes ranges from « Godspeed », by Frank Ocean, or « Cruel World », by Active Child, who reaffirm in a subtle way the meaning of the respective scenes; up to Chaii’s « Nobody Know » or Ruelle’s « The World We’ve Made » to accompany the action sequences. Here some selections work better than others.
With a production that bets on diversity in front of and behind the camera, The Old Guard fully meets two objectives: first, it fills the gap generated by the forced absence of blockbusters in the current summer season, with a proposal for action on a global scale , without complexes, and with a renowned Hollywood star in the title role; on the other hand, it serves as a solid cover letter for this unique squad of immortal warriors that will leave viewers wanting to see a little more, especially after the post-credit scene. Will it be successful enough to start a new action franchise? Hopefully we’ll see what these characters can offer outside of an installment that is clearly just the prelude.
Original title: The old guard
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights)
Actors: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Release date:July 10, 2020 (Netflix)