After years of directorial excellence, Gina Prince-Bythewood is finally granted a budget worthy of her greatness. “The Old Guard” marks the first superhero movie released by a major studio with a Black woman at the helm. Without the pressures of franchise uniformity, Prince-Bythewood uses the popular genre to dig into the everlasting merits of heroism. Rather than simply look cool, the superhero-action hybrid pulsates with three-dimensional characters from diverse backgrounds who kill to vanquish evil. Superhero iconography is everywhere thanks to DC and Marvel, but this adaptation of Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández’s graphic novel implores audiences to remove their fandom blinders and witness the personal toll of altruism.
Charlize Theron is perfectly cast to lead a mercenary team of immortals who have foiled countless crimes against humanity across history. Her Andromache “Andy” of Scythia exudes warrior goddess tenacity, sporting a slick side-part to keep up with contemporary hair trends. Her singular “look” pops right off the page, effortlessly transferring to a big screen adventure. While Andy’s colleagues don’t share her “comic book” aesthetic, their personalities endear without succumbing to motley crew cliche. Bloodshed or not, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) always attempt to find the humor in their neverending quest of do-goodery.
After some time apart, the team reunite for a mission in Morocco to rescue Sudanese girls from a human trafficking cartel. Delivering the job is Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-CIA agent who has been monitoring the activities of this freelance unit for awhile now. Their operation leads them to an abandoned warehouse where — according to Copley’s intel — the girls are reportedly held. Before they realize they’ve been double-crossed, hundreds of bullets pummel their bodies. The crew is dead on impact…or so everyone suspects. Their skin tissue instantly regenerates like X-Men’s Wolverine, as do their mortal wounds. Up, alive, and ready to rumble, the centuries-old coterie takes out the legion of hired assassins with rag doll ease.
Before they can plot revenge against Copley and his rich benefactors (Big Pharma leader, Merrick, played by a gleefully pompous and sniveling Harry Melling), the group is hit with a shared vision of an incoming new immortal. Thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, US marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) is killed in action after a terrorist slices open her neck. When the scar disappears and she’s healed up like nothing happened, Nile is discharged from her unit and scheduled to head back home for observation. Andy intervenes before Freeman can become a permanent lab rat for military exploitation.
Freeman is traumatized by her new powers, and instinctively rejects Andy’s help with violent pushback. When enough battering and blood convinces Freeman of her superhuman abilities, the young marine surrenders to her new life without ever knowing her purpose. In fact, no one on the team really does. Even though Rucka’s screenplay is standard fare for a band of freedom fighters taking on an evil corporation, it’s the people spearheading the fight who matter most. Nicky and Joe are openly gay superheroes whose cheesy love proclamations take on a form of sweet resistance. Schoenaert’s Booker is a man involuntarily pulled into this life, bearing heartache after heartache as he watches his loved ones die while he remains. Then there is Andy, someone whose tireless efforts have never been acknowledged by either destiny or a greater power.
“The Old Guard” powerfully demonstrates that heroics are a thankless job with no guarantee of visible impact. However, even the smallest noble deed can have an effect across time. Eventually, this ripple can be a tidal wave of progress long after it was set in motion. Prince-Bythewood and Rucka understand the need to present heroes as a group of tortured souls from all walks of life, abused and unappreciated by society who cheer trivial gains instead of immeasurable change. If you look past the frenetic, well-choreographed action sequences and sleek editing, this unconventional heroes’ journey reveals the immortality of unified courage.
“The Old Guard” is distributed by Netflix and hits the streaming giant this Friday, Jul. 10, 2020.