A covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret, just as an unexpected new member is discovered.
Watching someone lying dead as the bullets that temporarily killed them start to pop out onto the floor and their wounds heal, seeing a broken body after a fall from a window wake up and crack their smashed fingers back into place – it’s oddly riveting. But unlike many movies about the undead, the characters, and particularly their all-to-human stories, ensure The Old Guard is compelling well beyond those initial “how does this work then?” moments.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film is an intelligent, action-filled thriller but it’s also a study of what true love means, especially when time is your enemy.
Immortals Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) have been a couple since they killed each other during the Crusades; Joe’s 21st century paen to their enduring love, in a speech delivered both to Nicky and the men who have taken them prisoner, is remarkable and beautiful, both for its unabashed passion and its lyricism.
Their leader Andy (Charlize Theron) – full name Andromache of Scythia – has loved and lost; her guilt is like a weight that gets heavier as the centuries roll by. Her best friend and lover Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), was another Immortal, lost during England’s witch trials, taken away for a fate worse than death. When you love someone who can’t die there is no point at which you can think you did your best but they’re gone now.
The newest Immortal to be discovered, Nile (KiKi Layne), is struggling to cope with never seeing her family again once she realises what she is – will she break ranks for one last look?
Ex-CIA man Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who tracks them down for help rescuing a class of kidnapped schoolgirls, is bereft after the death of his wife. It’s what drives him to ensure no one should suffer like she did.
Granted, not everyone means it. “Youngest Pharma CEO” Merrick (Harry Melling) claims it’s his love for humanity which makes him want to get his hands on the Immortals, or more specifically their genetic code – though more likely it’s love for his share price. (Melling is the weak link. It looks like they’ve pitched a group of hugely experienced assassins with a combined age of several thousand years against an evil Boss Baby crossed with Kevin The Teenager.)
Now the four originals, including self-contained Napoleonic soldier Booker (an unshowy, almost shadowy performance from Matthias Schoenaerts) find themselves fighting to stay hidden from the world and from Merrick just as they’re getting to know Nile.
She’s a Marine, stationed in Afghanistan, who doesn’t realise she’s different until she is murdered on duty, a bloody attack which leaves her without even a scar. Her fellow soldiers keep their distance – what modern day witchcraft is this? – before Andy swoops in to rescue her.
Poor Andy. Everyone keep asking how old she is, and I know how irritating that is. Like, how can you still even be upright? The difference is I’m 49 and and starting to creak, while she is thousands of years old and can still karate chop and shoot her way through a squad of armed opponents.
All are starting to feel the weight of time; being immortal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and while I like the idea of extra years to get things done, realistically I imagine my to-do list would simply get longer if my life didn’t have a natural end point.
There’s an oppressive melancholia to The Old Guard. Their loneliness and fear, not of dying but of continuing to live, infects everything. Andy is asking herself whether their work can be more than a sticking plaster on a burning world and can’t even remember what her mother looks like. Booker still misses his family after 200 years. (One of their group betrays the rest, though with the best of intentions – it’s not hard to work out who, once you are watching.)
The weariness gets a bit wearing for us after two hours so god knows what it’s like to live with it 24/7 for centuries. Luckily the fighting, the characters and the different tensions in their relationships always pull us back; we know why they feel like this. The action sequences, which are precise and focused, also add much needed adrenalin to proceedings; there’s no obvious mid-movie slump.
Nile’s stunned reaction on seeing a church scattered with dead attackers (all Andy’s work) reminds us that films can make it seem commonplace for one person to take on many and win. Paradoxically for a story about Immortals the shocked response of a serving soldier places us back in real life.
The Old Guard asks interesting questions about utilitarianism (in its very basic form, the idea that the right course of action is one which brings the greatest utility, or happiness, to the greatest number). Is it okay to forcibly take the genetic code from Immortals to help millions of ordinary people? Merrick even claims it’s a moral duty.
Copley tries to help Andy and the others understand the good they have done by showing them the positive impact of the people they’ve saved down the centuries and their dependents.
His wall is papered with newspaper articles and yellowing photos of Andy and co involved in so many wars and disasters. What isn’t asked is a version of the old “should you kill baby Hitler if you got the chance” conundrum. What if one of the people they saved eventually became Ted Bundy’s great-great-grandma?
Theron is on great form; more human (ha) than in Atomic Blonde, which was stylish and entertaining but exceptionally brittle. Layne is excellent as a woman trying to balance the end of her old life where she had to be on permanent alert with a new one where she still has to be on permanent alert.
Marinelli and Kenzari are a terrific pairing, with chemistry by the bucketload. they are really the warm-hearted centre of the film. Love is both eternal solace and endless torment, and the biggest question is how it can endure.
Nicky and Joe live, die repeat for a millennium and still adore each other. I mean, never mind the immortality, how does that work? Haven’t they ever even been on a break?
Note: Don’t switch off when The Old Guard comes on screen at the end… there’s an important pre-credits scene
Read my article on the ending, and my thoughts on what it means (very spoilery!)
The Old Guard is now streaming on. Watch the trailer now: