Andy (Charlize Theron) leads a small troupe of invincible warriors. Whilst fleeing a mission gone wrong, they become psychically aware of a new immortal, Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne). Risking exposure and capture, the team race to find their new recruit before their enemies find her first.
Any film featuring immortal heroes faces the same challenges; making the characters feel their age in spite of their youthful appearance, creating convincing stakes when our heroes cannot die and trying to find a way to hint at the sheer existential nightmare of being alive forever. The film does admirably in these respects! A spirited cast led by Charlize Theron all have a weariness and serenity that bespeaks their experience. These are likable characters, reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s immortal lovers in Only Lovers Left Alive. Kiki Layne provides an excellent avatar to explore the strange group and the frightening implications of immortality.
Stakes come care of the vague threat that immortality does not last forever and that any one of these characters may suddenly and dramatically find themselves out of luck. It’s a bit of a forced fix, but it does actually create some moments of real tension as you wonder if the filmmakers would dare kill off its characters so cavalierly. There is also, though, the threat of discovery and exposure. This a far more palpable threat as we see the horrific fate that may befall our characters if they fall into the hands of their many enemies.
When it comes to the burden of time, the film does well to focus on what these characters have all lost. Many of the characters are experiencing grief and loneliness. Time can also be a hindrance to character motivation though. If a character betrays the team over something that happened centuries earlier, it’s hard to imagine the grudge lasting that long. Surely after centuries of living our characters would be a little more accepting of some of life’s harsh truths.
The final issue is thornier. After all why should superman concern himself with saving a plane full of people who will grow old and die long before he does? It’s a question masterfully explored by Alan Moore in the graphic novel Watchmen. Moore had his immortal hero learn the value of a single life in terms of its sheer mathematical improbability. The Old Guard has a different solution to this inhuman problem; a more holistic one. Because saving a single life creates ripples as that person ages and touches the lives of others, potentially even creating lives of their own. A life saved may lead to a cure for cancer further down the road. We are encouraged to adopt our main characters long-view of the human story.
You do then, of course, have to square this against the scores and scores of nameless, faceless goons the team annihilate throughout the film. Perhaps some of their kids might have cured cancer. There’s a bit of dissonance here between the somewhat thoughtful narrative of the film and the genre requirement to have lots of balletic murder-a-thons. We can’t always make the baddies robots or clones or projections of someone’s subconscious. Sometimes the audience just has to suspend their disbelief, and The Old Guard does an adequate job of keeping its musings separate from its carnage.
The action sequences are fun considering the film has the substantial disadvantage of being a modern, western action movie. Consequently, various methods of making the filmmakers job more convenient at the expense of audience impact are in use. After all, it’s easier to use CGI blood and heavily edited fight sequences, and The Old Guard utilises both of these measures. It is a shame that such a fun premise and some clearly capable action choreography has been robbed of it’s impact by what is now an industry-standard laziness. But the sequences here are still far more engaging than any Fast and Furious movie, partly because the stakes are relatable and because Charlize Theron has always had palpable conviction in these sequences.
The Old Guard is a briskly paced superhero action movie that does well to ground its fantastical premise into a relatable world. It takes a little while for the fun to start, but once it does the humour and action work well with the brooding. The final stinger suggests a much more personal conflict on the horizon for the group. There’s a lot of potential in this property, I just hope it lives long enough to realise it.