The Old Guard wants to be the first entry in a franchise very, very badly. Based on the first entry, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka (adapted from his comic series of the same name), that desire is warranted. The Old Guard is populated by complex characters with full backstories, all ripe for exploration. The only frustration is that a two hour movie doesn’t feel like enough space to do them justice.
Charlize Theron’s Andy (full name Andromache of Scythia) leads a small militia of unkillable warriors, of which she’s the oldest. Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are lovers who first met as enemies during the crusades. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a former Napoleonic soldier. Together they work as do-gooder mercenaries, trying to serve the righteous side of whatever conflict they find themselves in.
After their latest adventure turns into a double-cross, Andy and her comrades make a narrow escape and discover there’s a new addition to their family. Nile (KiKi Layne) is a young marine whose superhuman healing abilities have suddenly manifested, much to her fellow soldiers’ confusion and fear. Andy must locate Nile and initiate her into their group, while she and her brothers-in-arms also dodge an ex-CIA agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a pharma CEO (Harry Melling) who want to learn, harvest, and sell the secrets of their immortality.
Prince-Bythewood, usually associated with romantic dramas like Love and Basketball or Beyond the Lights, isn’t the first name you’d think of for a film like this (though her work directing the series premiere of Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger showed she was more than ready). Her take on the genre, however, supplements the well-directed action scenes with a dose of humanity. The connection between Andy, Booker, Joe and Nicky is warm and rooted in years of bonding. Rucka and Prince-Bythewood hint at the group’s affection and long-standing inside jokes just as they directly address their centuries of loss and regret. Layne’s Nile makes a great addition to their dynamic, fierce in battle but not yet cynical about the world in the way the world-weary Andy is.
The richness of The Old Guard’s characters is its greatest strength, but there’s a wealth of barely-explored material that is also a major weakness. We see some of Andy’s past experiences, as well as Booker’s, but only brief flashes. These moments help establish some context and ground rules. However, there’s also so much going on–ancient armies, personal losses, characters no longer with the current group–that those glimpses often leave you with more questions than answers. Undoubtedly this is meant to hint at future storylines to be explored in a sequel, but the result is that The Old Guard sometimes feels more like a pilot for a TV show rather than a standalone movie.
Despite the occasional sense that we’re being forced to invest in a new quantity rather than letting that quantity speak for itself, The Old Guard remains a solid piece of action filmmaking. It’s easy to envision what worked about this story and characters in comic form, and Theron and company give excellent, layered performances. Whether Prince-Bythewood and Rucka are allowed to make good on the promises they make remains to be seen, but it seems very likely that they’ll get plenty of support from viewers.
“The Old Guard” is now streaming on Netflix.