Geek Review: The Old Guard (Netflix)

Heralded as a veteran comic book writer with the gift of versatility, Greg Rucka, who is also the recipient of numerous DC related accolades, truly shines through his original works. Known for his strong female protagonists and twisting, gritty plots, he’s had notable stints with strong female characters, and this time, he’s managed to replicate his own work, by writing the film adaptation of one of his most recent work, The Old Guard.

Netflix’s The Old Guard is a chic action-packed film with some weighty themes surrounding friendship, love, and regret. Adapted from the comic of the same name, it is a story of an unlikely band of mercenaries who take on high-risk jobs. Sounds bland? Here’s the catch – every one of them on the team is immortal (sorta). Led by the millennia-old Andromache of Scythia (Andy), the team comprises three other brothers-in-arms, Yusuf (Joe), Nicolo (Nicky), and Sebastian (Booker), and soon, newcomer Nile (Kiki Layne).

The team has traversed the world for centuries, completing jobs that feel right to them and evading detection. But in the digital 21st century, secrets are hard to keep and a nefarious organisation is hell-bent on uncovering their immortal existence in an attempt to capture, study and feed off them – after all, who doesn’t want to cure diseases and live forever? Are these mercenaries villains or are they heroes? As aptly surmised by Joe in the film, “It depends on the century.”

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“This is a fairy tale of blood and bullets.” Echoing the opening line of the comic, the film opens with the clattering of bullet shells onto the ground and a brief scene of carnage. Andy’s narration takes over, voicing her melancholia regarding their immortal state and wondering when this ordeal will end.  

Instead of thrusting viewers right into the heart of the action as most action films are wont to do, The Old Guard’s plot goes through a gradual build-up. We follow Andy through a nondescript alleyway in Morocco and the scene is intercut with Booker biking along the streets. The two meet and Andy hands a book to Booker. (Yes, there’s a real pun somewhere)

We soon find out that Booker is in contact with an ex-CIA agent, James Copley, who they helped during an incident in Surabaya from 8 years ago and Copley wants their help with a new hostage situation. 

Copley is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange), who seems to have a penchant for portraying disillusioned characters with misplaced good intentions. It was slightly predictable that Copley was going to sell-out the Old Guards right from the outset due to several clues. The first being him claiming to be ex-CIA and going freelance, and the second being that his wife had passed on due to ALS. This sets up for a sad, conflicted character who is desperate to find a way to make the world better by ending suffering. And the most obvious route to that would be to study the genetic code of these immortals.

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This triggers a whole chain of events, but before all that action, we are first treated to a joyful team reunion of the Quartet. During the reunion, there is a noticeable switch in framing of the scene. Every time the camera falls on a character, they are framed in a closeup or a mid-close up, revealing the intimate and close-knit bond that the group shares.

However, despite the warm reunion, Andy is adamant against taking up the job as she felt that taking up jobs a second time risks the exposure of their secret. The lengths she goes through to remain untraceable have also been reflected in a short but significant scene.

A group of tourists outside the team’s meeting place accidentally captured Andy’s profile in the background and she immediately reaches out to scrub the photo from their devices. Her paranoia isn’t unfounded as the digitized age makes covering up loose trials all the harder.

Rap music is next on the movie’s playlist as we dive back into the action and this trend continues throughout the film. The choice of pop music is brilliant, a perfect way to give a nod back to the film’s origin of being a comic book.

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And speaking of comic book origins, one of the toughest challenges is adapting action sequences from the pages to screen. However, the film certainly pulls no punches as every fight scene is well choreographed. Even the shaky cam, a deliberate film technique used in most fight sequences, enhances the scene instead of being used to overcompensate for lackluster fighting. Moreover, Andy’s choice of wielding melee weapons in combat further emphasises on her control and power over the fights when directly contrasted with the chaotic barrage of bullets from modern firearms.

However, if we were to pick the best fight scene, it would have to be the one that takes place between Andy and Nile on the plane. Following an unexpected turn of events, the two engage in hand-to-hand combat in the middle of this cramped space. The lack of big flashy movements is made up by sharp and concise punches that create a snappy action sequence. Accompanied by upbeat electronic music, both ladies take turns outmaneuvering each other with some impressive flips and wall-running.

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What makes the action scenes even crazier is the fact that Charlize Theron who plays the titular character, Andy, did the film while her hand was injured. Charlize Theron herself is no stranger to action and has portrayed some pretty badass women on-screen such as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Speaking during a Jimmy Kimmell live interview, she explains that she had torn the ligament right off the bone while fighting in one of the scenes and went around filming with that injury for 2 months. What a true badass!

Another poignant moment in the film was when Joe wholeheartedly declared his love for Nicky while being held hostage in a van full of soldiers no less. This scene was not just randomly written in to use gay characters as a show of tokenism and could be the first portrayal of a man loving another man in a big-budget superhero movie. What could have been a spiel of cringe-worthy words of love was turned into something powerful and poetic and the biggest f*** you to the narrow-minded soldiers around them. This comes as no surprise as helming the movie is no other than director Gina Prince Bythewood.

Over the years, Gina has directed great romantic dramas such as Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. Each film is filled with sensitive heartfelt moments, intense bittersweet yearning, and wrestles with complicated issues of love and friendship, competitiveness. Despite the drama, every performance is filled with believability and this translates into The Old Guard as well.

As such, the film, unlike most superhero action films, patiently takes its time to delve deeper into the characters. It is a film that is grounded in realistic, intimate moments and vulnerable characters.   

Andy, the leader of the Quartet has lived for a millennium and by the time the story starts, the years have taken its toll on her. Disillusioned and tired, she resembles more of a cranky grandma who just wants to get the job done. In the film, she is also noticeably less frivolous than her comic book self.

Nicky, played by Luca Marinelli (Martin Eden), and Joe, played by Marwan Kenzari (Wolf, Aladdin) met as soldiers on opposite sides of the first crusade just over a thousand years ago and realised their immortality when they couldn’t kill each other. They were luckier than the rest as their violent first encounter blossomed into love, thus they each had a companion to weather through the years together. 

Booker, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (The Danish Girl, Disorder), is a French veteran of the Napoleonic wars. He realised his immortality when he couldn’t be hanged after they sentenced him to execution for desertion. His painful past comes to light one night while speaking with Nile about family.

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And lastly, Nile, played by up and coming actress, KiKi Layne, is the newcomer of the group. She was an ex-marine who discovered her immortality after she managed to survive a slit throat, and was the first old guard to have been created after hundreds of years.

Their abilities, besides the ability to heal even from the most grievous wounds, also include dreaming of other fellow immortals, and this could happen years before they even meet. A little downside to the dream ability was the way it was portrayed in the film. With blurred visions that flashed across the screen, viewers are left with incoherent imagery and an editing technique that is barely repeated anywhere else in the film, making it all the more baffling. We are nitpicking here and the film was quick to explain about these dream sequences, but we felt that the imagery could have been better brought across to the audience. 

Gina also worked closely with Rucka to revise the plot to fit it into a movie. As exciting as it is for fans to see the original comic book creator pen the screenplay, Rucka himself was very enthusiastic about the adaptation due to the new storytelling opportunities that arose. While adapting it into a movie and working with Gina, they realised they could focus more on the team dynamics. In creating the movie, Rucka also felt that he was able to delve more into Nile’s character, something that was not as deeply explored in the original graphic novel.

And if you’re wondering, no, the movie does not follow the book completely. There are some some elements that were given a slight twist, new characters have been added and the ending allows for a sequel with or without all the main cast, which means there’s something new, even for comic fans.

Maybe this was also a key thing in being able to make such a good movie adaptation, because the story was not copied wholesale but looked upon with fresh eyes, giving it new angles and dynamism.

Beyond superb directing, writing, editing, and camera work, the art direction and VFX also bear many accomplishments with this film. From how the bullets are expelled from their flesh to how Andy’s skin gets progressively more haggard as a clue-in to her losing her immortality, truly demonstrates great attention to detail. It also comes as no surprise that the wounds and death-like parlor of the characters looked so convincing on-screen, as the special effects were directed by award-winning SFX artist, David Malinowski (Darkest Hour, World War Z, Overlord)

The Old Guard began as a five-issue miniseries created by writer Greg Rucka and legendary comic illustrator Leandro Fernandez and was published by Image Comics. It is their credit that Skydance studios picked up the series even before the second issue of the five-part mini-series had even been released.

The film has just the right balance of action and plot with some deep moments to keep viewers glued to their screens. The film is not afraid to show a respectable amount of gore and violence while grappling with the idea of immortality and how there are fates worse than death. As quoted in the film, “Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we keep hurting.” The Old Guard is truly a well-adapted film that pays tribute to almost every well-loved aspect of the original graphic novel.

GEEK REVIEW SCORE

Summary

Patient, poignant and passionate, this is a heartfelt story of a band of unlikely superheroes who have traversed the earth for over a century and the struggle to grapple with what it means to live forever.

Overall
8.8/10
8.8/10
  • Story - 8/10
    8/10
  • Direction - 9/10
    9/10
  • Characterisation - 9/10
    9/10
  • Geek Satisfaction - 9/10
    9/10
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