Netflix’s adaptation of The Old Guard is a refreshing break from the sameness of mid-tier action films. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it is also a remarkably faithful adaptation of the comic book by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez — then again, that may have something to do with Rucka writing the screenplay himself. Either way, it brings a new spin of the merc team trope you see in so many of these sorts of films and, for the most part, succeeds in all of its goals.
Charlize Theron stars as Andromache of Scythia — or “Andy” for short — a nigh-immortal warrior who has been involved in almost every conflict in human history. Along with a handful of other nearly unkillable soldiers, she attempts to make things better. But the 21st Century has offered her little evidence that their millennia of work is doing any good. Her doubts are put on hold when her team get a new job from Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an old CIA contact. The mission is supposedly a rescue operation, but when it becomes clear Copley set them up to prove their immortality, Andy decides he must pay.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, a young Marine named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) takes a lethal blow, but survives unharmed. She’s the first new immortal in centuries and Andy has to make contact with her while trying to track Copley down.
The plot will sound familiar to anyone who read the first five issues of The Old Guard comic book series. The film is, quite literally, based on that first story — right down to Andy’s opening lines and nearly every action beat. Some details and scenes are moved for greater clarity — Prince-Bythewood wisely decides not to cross-cut between Nile’s first death and Andy’s bad op — and only one of the comic’s flashback scenes ends up deleted. Sadly, it is one of the more effective stories of Andy’s past.
Another flashback gets reworked so all the characters have the chance to tell Nile (and the audience) about a fate worse than death. It is highly effective and truly palpable. It also offers Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) a chance for a little more characterization; something they lack in the first few issues of the comics.
Beyond the script, Prince-Bythewood does a great job with the action by toning down the stylization of the photography and allowing the ballets of carnage to play out without a lot of cutting or flashy camera angles. Even in the more dramatic scenes, the film maintains a more grounded look than, say, an Olivier Megaton film of similar scope or even the more extreme and monochrome color palette of initial Old Guard colorist Daniela Miwa. The overall effect is economical and, to some eyes, a look more befitting a television pilot, but the cleanliness of Prince-Bythewood’s direction is a nice change from the muddled “visionary” look many action directors feel they need these days. Sometimes, you can trust your actors to deliver the fights and the drama.
And Theron is, overall, trustworthy in this regard. She plays up Andy’s weariness in a way that makes it much more a direct theme of the story. Yes, her comic book counter part muses on when she will die, but Theron’s Andy feels closer to acceptance. It means she’s steely and determined in the action, but it makes her colder when talking to Booker or Nile. It’s a strange note as Andy finding a renewed sense of living is such a big part of that first comic book storyline. The film tries to capture this in some ways, but a greater change to Andy’s plot — which will not cover in greater detail as it is a massive spoiler — means she never gets to have that “I’m alive!” moment she has in the book.
This change also means the final action spectacle has less of the over-the-top, silly air of the same scenes in the comic. To be fair, it would be tough for a film in 2020 to have that sort of violent catharsis and be in any sort of good taste. It does honor the sequence in some places, though, like Joe recognizing and dealing with a goon who shot Nicky earlier in the story. It also saves one of the best moments of the comic’s Dubai sequence for a much, much better spot in the overall narrative.
Layne, Schoenaerts, Marinelli, and Kenzari also prove to be great choices for Nile, Booker, Nicky, and Joe. Kenzari, in particular, shines when he gives that speech in the armored car. Layne is a treat throughout as she goes from disbelief to valued member of the crew. If a subsequent Old Guard movie were to star her in the lead, she would certainly have the chops to carry it.
But that brings us to our main quibble with the film. It’s clear Netflix sees a future for The Old Guard as a film series, but it also positions Andy in such a way that Theron has an easy out should she not want to continue. That change does not feel natural from a storytelling point of view as it sets up something in this film which never occurs. Instead, it leaves Andy in such an ambiguous state that we can’t help but feel the words “contract negotiation” appearing over the final moments. That sense of a business deal, not story, determining her fate left a sour note for us.
Beyond that, though, the film certainly makes you want to see Andy, Nile, and the others again; which is the main goal of any film adapted from an on-going comic book. Let’s just hope Netflix and Theron can agree on commitment that makes everyone happy.
The Old Guard is available on Netflix now.