Being a superhero isn’t an easy gig, an idea that has inspired recent cinematic explorations ranging from the sublime (“Logan”) to the ridiculous (Tobey Maguire going goth in “Spider-Man 3”). That same concept also drives Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard,” a Netflix-produced take on Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s 2017 comic book miniseries of the same name, but her version is as fresh as any comic book movie made since superhero mania swept the multiplex.
Even the film’s own star Charlize Theron previously interrogated the weirdly relatable theme that being a superhero can be a real slog in Peter Berg’s “Hancock.” Here, she’s the oldest member of the Old Guard, kick-ass mercenaries who happen to be a) very old and b) mostly immortal. And as the film opens, she finds herself again pondering the value of fighting the seemingly same battles on an unending timeline. Despite the familiarity, “The Old Guard” manages to be both very grounded and very entertaining, a marriage of expectations and twists unlike little else the genre has inspired even during its most fruitful times.
Prince-Bythewood, while still best known for her singular romantic drama “Love & Basketball,” is no stranger to comic book work, having been long attached to direct “Silver and Black” (a Sony production meant to team up Spiderman stars Silver Sable and Black Cat) and even directing an episode of Marvel’s short-lived “Cloak & Dagger” series. But her greatest strength lies in her interest in complex people, making “The Old Guard” a perfect fit for her wide-ranging sensibilities. Oh, and the action. Did we mention the action? We will.
Still, Prince-Bythewood is not entirely free of the constraints of the genre and some of the film’s narrative trappings will not surprise, from an undercooked villain and a winking conclusion that just barely subverts the standard post-credits reveal (this time, the twists are before the credits!). But the film (and particularly Rucka’s script) leave plenty on the table for further incarnations, making it another rarity: a comic book movie that earns its franchise potential.
Andy (aka Andromache of Scythia, if you’re feeling historical) has seen it all before, and Theron enters the film with a world-weariness that’s understandable even to beings that haven’t lived for thousands of years. “The Old Guard” opens as Andy makes tentative steps to return to her clan and their self-imposed duty to do good through all manner of holy ass-kicking. Their mantra is simple enough (do what they think is right) and while it’s kept them alive for hundreds upon hundreds of years, it doesn’t seem to be making much difference in the world itself. “The world isn’t getting any better, it’s getting worse,” one character spits, an observation that’s tough to fight, even removed from a world in which superheroes are possible.
Pulled back into the fray — and eager to reunite with the only other three beings like her (portrayed by Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) — Andy and her team take on a mission to save a group of kidnapped schoolgirls in the South Sudan. The plan came from a new ally (a wonderfully understated Chiwetel Ejiofor) and when it all goes topside, the foursome must root out who sold them out, and why. And while that does sound familiar, that’s part of its sneaky power: Nothing the team has dealt with before is new (even if the film’s bad guy, played by Harry Melling, who doesn’t quite let his baddie get icky enough, thinks it is), and maybe nothing ever will be again.
And yet. Rucka’s screenplay works out a clever entry point that not only helps to explain some of the weirder aspects of their mythology (key: they’re not actually immortal, but close) and enlivens a narrative that is built on being sick of the same old shit. While Andy and her guys have known others like them — including Andy’s closest compatriot, played by Veronica Ngo in a series of emotional flashbacks — it’s been just the four of them for centuries now. Now caught in the drama of another big fight (against the world, the man, plain old hubris), they suddenly become aware of another member: Sprightly young Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) is understandably freaked out to discover that she can heal from even the most grievous of wounds. (And that’s to say nothing of the reaction of her beloved squad-mates.)
What the film ignores in terms of propulsive plotting — again, you likely know where this is going — introspection and intelligence more than make up for it. It’s a movie that wants its audience to think and if that sounds like a weird fit for the genre, you’ve surely never pondered what it would mean to be all-powerful in a world that only wants to see things go boom. That said, “The Old Guard” also takes the time to kick some serious ass. Andy and her pals have spent centuries trying to make the world better, but that has also required them to learn how to really fuck up someone along the way.
Through gritty, bruising action sequences and emotional flashbacks, the limits of their powers are revealed, as is the scariest bit: They can die, but they never know when it’s coming. Prince-Bythewood builds that fear into every single action sequence, among the best that Netflix has hosted in its growing body of action movies (and the very best of this year, which has already seen the release of the bone-crunching “Extraction”).
Steeped in hand-to-hand action (a sequence in which Theron and Layne go at it on a plane leaves a mark on them, the pilot, the audience, the guy walking around outside while you watch it inside your home, everyone), but with enough ballistic firepower to kit out a small civil war, every action sequence is more than awe-inspiring; they’re necessary to the film itself. Superhero battles that are eye popping and narratively motivated? Oh, yeah.
It all builds to the revelation that perhaps Andy and her team’s attempts to aid the world have not been as fruitless as they’ve feared, and that doing the right thing (or even trying to do it) is worthwhile, even when it comes with a steep price. That idea adds heft to an already deep-thinking movie, and it also sets up plenty of ideas worth exploring in its inevitable sequel (which, yes, we can only hope will sport even more nutso action). Being a superhero isn’t easy, but “The Old Guard” reminds us that it — and the entertainment it can inspire — might be the best way to explore what it means to be a person.
“The Old Guard” will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, July 11.