The Old Guard is rated R by Netflix.
As is the Netflix way, the first trailer for their 2020 summer action film The Old Guard was released only a few weeks before the movie itself, and it naturally generated some buzz. After all, Netflix’s last attempt at superhero cinema adapted from an obscure comic was the Umbrella Academy, a titled watched by 45 million people in its first four weeks of existence and one of Netflix’s most popular shows ever.
Yet while I was an early Umbrella Academy enthusiast, it took me two years to get around to writing about The Old Guard, perhaps because it never quite lived up to the high standard that the streaming giant’s other super dysfunctional family had set. Nevertheless, with increasingly terrifying news about the COVID-19 pandemic rolling in from around the world, I’m reminded of how satisfying I found The Old Guard’s relatively clever brand of action movie escapism when the pandemic was still in its uncertain early days.
That nostalgia, unfortunately, does not fully extend to the movie’s clever but off-putting one line premise: rare warriors through the ages are resurrected after being killed in battle with the ability to heal from any injury, rendering them unable to die, even if they sometimes want to.
It’s a good idea, but one that leaves The Old Guard with some genre problems right from the start. The somewhat depressing nature of the idea, a movie filled with characters who can only enter the plot after dying horribly, immediately made it difficult to turn the property into a lighthearted and forgettable superhero adventure, although Netflix certainly tried. Likewise, the company seemed desperate to avoid a less action-heavy interpretation that might have focused on the human cost of immortality, an idea which has notably come back into the spotlight with Marvel’s Eternals.
Nevertheless, The Old Guard manages to come across as a surprisingly good film, even if its best moments are consigned to the sidelines by Netflix’s branding strategy. After all, it’s hard to make the admittedly meticulously choreographed fight scenes very gripping when all of the protagonists are literally immortal.
For example, take the movie’s first scene, in which the main character, Andromache of Scythia, is already dead. Lest you think that this might be an opportunity to explain the team’s immortality, don’t worry, it is, but first you’ll have to sit through an extended flashback about Andy’s recent happy reunion with her crew. And once they’ve covered their bases with other genres, the lovable misfits convince the disillusioned legend to come out of retirement for one last job, because this is apparently also a heist movie now.
That sequence aside, however, the movie doesn’t really start until the team learn of the first new immortal in centuries, a young American marine in Iraq named Nile. Andy, already frustrated and ready to give up on the noble immortal warrior thing altogether, angrily sends the other three fighters away to go after the rookie on her own.
This is where The Old Guard really begins to find its stride, with the uneasy and later heartfelt relationship between the ancient and sardonic mentor and her young and passionate student taking its natural place at the heart of the story. It’s a model that has been tried and tested by many action movies in the past, but rarely with two women in the leading roles.
With all that in its favor, it’s a shame that The Old Guard is bogged down with so many vapid fight scenes, pointless light shows filled with replaceable soldiers who’s shockingly terrible aim, for once, doesn’t matter, because nobody in this movie can die anyway.
Nevertheless, what really makes The Old Guard stand out from the massively oversaturated action movie market is its sheer attention to detail and character building. Massive amounts of dialogue, and several plot points, are dedicated to Nile’s guilt over allowing her family to think her dead and her desire to return to them, exactly the kind of detail that would be glossed over in any other story of a hero whisked away to a new life.
Just as with the Umbrella Academy, the invincible immortals of The Old Guard are above all people, with the same hopes, dreams, anxieties, fears, and deep flaws as anyone else. For all the movie’s limits, it is still a remarkably entertaining and compelling epic, one filled with genuine hope and compassion in defiance of authoritarian greed. It might not be the best movie you could be watching, but for anyone looking for some action movie escapism this weekend I highly recommend it.