The Old Guard: Obsolete, by David Bax
This review will not be simply a list of things Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández’s The Old Guard changes from the source material. But fans of the graphic miniseries will take note almost immediately that Charlize Theron’s Andy, an ancient and immortal(ish) mercenary, displays great facility with a smartphone, a departure from the original version’s endearing bafflement at new technology. That’s a minor departure and no reason to complain, especially when the screenplay (adapted by Rucka himself) also adds rewarding new layers, like a flashback sequence that illustrates the potentially horrific consequences of not being able to die (for the most part). What’s truly missed, though, are the existential complications of Andy’s exhaustion at still being alive after all these centuries, a result of the movie’s favor for a generic action mode over a psychological one.
Andy and her cohorts–Nicky (Luca Marinelli), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts)–have spent a very, very long time working as guns for hire and then laying low lest anyone notice that they haven’t aged between jobs. The Old Guard‘s plot kicks off when two things happen at once; an American Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne) becomes the latest (kinda) immortal to join their ranks and an unscrupulous pharmaceutical executive (Harry Melling) learns of the team’s extended existence and sets out to uncover the secrets to everlasting life (or close to it). As you’ve guessed by now, there are, in fact, circumstances in which these women and men can die, though the obligatory sequel set-up assures us that at least some of them could be sticking around for a while.
Prince-Bythewood’s last feature was 2014’s Beyond the Lights, a drama about relationships amidst the surreal and taxing specifics of a career in the pop star industry. The Old Guard doesn’t reach that film’s emotional depths but the confidence with modern music carries over, with excellently employed tracks by the likes of Frank Ocean and Marshmello nicely complimenting Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran’s internationally tinged score.
Fantasy and stylized violence are new arenas for Prince-Bythewood but she adapts to it well. It helps that the fight choreography is good and the bloody visual effects are great but much of The Old Guard‘s second half–especially the climactic office high-rise showdown–are staged, shot and edited with skills for coherence, tension, excitement and surprise.
Those are the elements we should expect from any modern day action/thriller. Where The Old Guard lets us down is with the things that ought to make it unique. Andy, Nicky, Joe and Booker all have stories–how they met, when they were born, how they discovered who they were, years and years of past adventures–that Prince-Bythewood, bafflingly, seems eager to treat as mere backstory. What little we get of this information is dealt with as perfunctorily and economically as possible. Instead of immersive, the film’s flashbacks are often just literal flashes.
Thus, we are robbed of character moments, which stings all the more for how much Prince-Bythewood excels at the few of those we do get, like a one-on-one scene between Andy and a pharmacy clerk (another welcome departure from the comic). The Old Guard produces superficial thrills but turns its potentially fascinating protagonists into a team made up of minor variations on Jason Bourne.