The Old Guard: A lean, mean franchise starter
James R | On 10, Jul 2020
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli
Watch The Old Guard online in the UK: Netflix UK
Hot on the heels of 6 Underground comes The Old Guard, Netflix’s latest attempt to do the one thing it hasn’t quite managed yet: build its own blockbuster franchise. The streamer has found huge success with its romantic comedies, but when it comes to action movies, it only has two sequels on the way: a follow-up to its divisive fantasy cop flick Bright and a more promising sequel to 2020 breakout hit Extraction. Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, starring Ryan Reynolds, was its first major stab at building a crew of misfit heroes to rival Fast & Furious. While that went too big to really stick the landing, though, The Old Guard emerges as a lean, mean thriller that makes more of an impression.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, who has repeatedly impressed with 2000’s Love & Basketball and 2014’s Beyond the Lights, is at the helm of this graphic novel adaptation, and she doesn’t miss that opportunity – put simply, she directs the heck out of it. She crafts some genuinely thrilling moments, balancing tough, neck-snapping physical choreography with the usual gun-toting shootouts, and nails one gasp-inducing scene involving a window.
All that’s an impressive feat, given that the film is essentially based around a small group of people who, for reasons unknown, can’t be killed. Charlize Theron stars as Andy, the leader of these mercenaries who attempt to use their apparent immortality to bump off the right wrong people. She’s backed up by Matthias Schoenaerts as long-standing sidekick Booker, Marwan Kenzari as Joe and Luca Marinelli as Nicky. Into the group comes new recruit Nile (Kiki Layne), a former marine who tries to find the balance between always staying alive and staying out of painful situations.
It’s in Nile’s grappling with the very idea of Andy’s undead outsiders that The Old Guard unwittingly undoes some of its own material – the film tries to find a way to add actual stakes to what is, essentially, a risk-free proposition. But when it dwells more on the existential anguish of outliving anyone you know, the script is on surer footing, and Theron’s brooding presence is ideal for the central role of a tough, stoic leader perpetually going through a cycle of grief. KiKi Layne, meanwhile, is wonderful as the wide-eyed Nile, bringing the same charisma that wowed in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Also enjoying himself is rising star Harry Melling as a creepy corporate villain. If we never quite the same sense of breezy fun, though, there’s a quietly bold streak to this actioner that elevates it about seemingly similar fare. Prince-Bythewood doesn’t let the pace drop between inventive set pieces, yet still finds time to bring out the humanity in her cast, including a brilliantly touching and fierce relationship between Joe and his boyfriend Nicky. A speech by one about the other in the film’s final half is one of the most genuine and refreshing moments in recent blockbuster memory.
The introduction of Chiwetel Ejiofor as a potential handler for the team highlights how straight-faced the film is about an inherently absurd premise. But if a sequel could embrace the silliness buried in its source material’s DNA, The Old Guard could become the fast and furious new franchise Netflix has been looking for.
The Old Guard is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.