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Netflix’s ‘The Old Guard’ grounds immortal anti-heroes with human cores

Netflix’s ‘The Old Guard’ grounds immortal anti-heroes with human cores

Netflix’s ‘The Old Guard’ grounds immortal anti-heroes with human cores
July 15
13:51 2020

“I’ve been here before, over and over again, and each time the same question — Is this it? Will this time be the one? And each time the same answer. And I’m so tired of it.”

Immortality and action do not necessarily mesh together as well as one might expect — after all, how can there be tension when the protagonist is all but unkillable? While smooth, gripping action is inarguably the most important pillar of a good action sequence, there must be stakes and a sense of danger against the hero, which immortality often removes. Despite that, franchises like “Highlander,” “Wolverine,” “Underworld” and more all revolve around nigh-invulnerable protagonists against hordes of baddies. Some of them work, some of them do not.

Now comes Netflix’s newest comic-book adaptation, “The Old Guard,” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based on the first volume of the pretty good comic by writer Greg Rucka, who wrote the film, and artist Leandro Fernandez. Thanks to Prince-Bythewood’s direction, Rucka maintaining the tone of his original work while adding to the overall mythology and the solid performances of the Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne-led cast, “The Old Guard” does work. Mostly.

First, Prince-Bythewood and her crew demonstrate a solid grip on action filmmaking, with a few hiccups. The geography of the action, and everyone’s spots within sequences, is consistent from frame to frame, keeping it easy to understand. The actors also get to show off their extensive training, with a healthy combo of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay, taking heavy influence from the “John Wick” saga. Also, the special weapons each one uses, like Andromache “Andy’s” tactical labrys? Pretty dope, though it and the other weapons don’t show up much beyond the first action sequence.

Still, there is some setback in how Prince-Bythewood shoots the action. Part of her camerawork is somewhat-shaky handheld and close-up, which obscures the combat the characters engage in. Some minor quick cuts, notably during the first action sequence, also drag down the coherency. The “John Wick” influence, however beloved the films are, is very visible, so there’s not much originality involved, even if what’s on-screen is an axe-swing above the rest.

The violence is also perhaps lacking in comparison to the comic. Bullet wounds are realistically rendered through a combination of practical and digital FX — intestines can be seen at one point, and bullets fall out and leave behind fleshy pink skin. The crew could have benefitted more from escalating the carnage, especially since the titular team continued fighting in the source material while missing chunks of their heads and their eyeballs were dangling by optic nerves.

Mostly, Prince-Bythewood has herself a solid genre debut, after working almost entirely in dramas and the unmade Sony-Marvel flick “Silver & Black.”

Yet, what stood out the most was the emotional core of the cast. Andy (Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) all feel like a tight-knit family, bonding over centuries of camaraderie that resonates from each of them.  Theron gets to stretch her action muscles, figuratively and literally, while also delivering borderline-cliche soliloquies on the state of the world.  Co-lead Layne is also awesome as Nile Freeman, the newest immortal and a former Marine who has to grapple with the potential implications of her existence. A great example is a conversation between her and Booker, discussing the impact immortality has on their loved ones and their way of coping with it. Great characterization and banter all around.

An especially sweet note is that the gay romance between Joe (a Muslim warrior during the Crusades) and Nicky (a crusader who fought Joe) made it over from the comic, with some especially sweet interactions between the two, submitting them as solid interracial LGBTQ+ representation. Despite being two of the deadliest killers on Earth, there’s an especially lovely speech from Joe to Nicky conveying their centuries-long love. Their relationship is simply beautiful and believable.

Then there are the antagonists, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Merrick (Harry Melling). The former delivers a solidly charismatic performance, as usual, and is sympathetic in a direct yet well-executed deviation from his comic-counterpart. Merrick, however, feels more like a spoiled child with a knife and was not the best choice. There’s no real menace from the antagonists, besides a potential “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream“-style fate for the heroes, which does help but isn’t solidified through its antagonists.

Overall, the cast is solid and gives the movie an emotional core that anchors these ancient killers and gives weight to the on-screen spectacles. While the action is very decent, the characters are the true pillar of the movie.

The story, on the other hand, is faithful while implementing some major changes. Andronika of Scythia becomes Andromache of Scythia and she gets an expanded backstory involving another comic character, played by Veronica Ngo. The big one, though, has Rucka add in a new overarching subplot surrounding the Guard’s potential impact on human history. No spoilers, but it’s a big change that removes some of the nihilistic existentialism of the comic, which I personally liked, though some may disagree.

The story drags some toward the end, however, taking place in a sterile, desaturated lab reminiscent of  “Hitman: Agent 47” and the “Resident Evil” movies. Story-wise,  some ambiguity involving one character’s immortality appears to be brushed off near the end in a way that’s not quite clear. Rucka may have plans in potential future installments, but it’s not for sure.

What is potentially a nitpick is the budget of $70 million, which isn’t always on the screen. The final act, as noted above, has a desaturated color palette clashing with the rest of the movie and some of the roughness of the action can expose a sense of cheapness at times. Still, that’s only if viewers take a harder look at it, and even then the action will mostly hold up.

As for music, I practically forgot any and all of their contributions to the story, with focusing very heavily on licensed tracks, with songs from artists like Frank Ocean and Marshmello. While Frank Ocean is awesome, the focus on tracks with lyrics taking over the audio during action sequences can distract and take an audience member of the moment, a shared-complaint that seems to be circulating. Sound mixing also felt somewhat muddled during a shootout in France near the end, with vocals overpowering the gunshots and knife-flaying.

“The Old Guard” is a decent action flick that, while not carrying the excess of neither its source material nor fellow Netflix original “Extraction,” is still entertaining with a surprisingly solid emotional core, even if it’s weighed down by the bland villain, pop-heavy soundtrack and minor setbacks in the action department. Still, fans of the comic will likely be satisfied and the Guard themselves will stick with audiences for a while after the credits roll.

Final rating: 3.25/5

Featured image: Courtesy Netflix

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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