Based on the comic series of the same name by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, The Old Guard boasts a relatively simple premise: A group of immortal mercenaries travel around the world intervening in conflicts while doing their best to keep the secret of their eternal life hidden from those who would exploit them. It's a little bit Highlander, a little bit Avengers (or any superhero team-up movie, really), and it comes jam-packed with all the associated tropes and trappings--which, unsurprisingly, probably tells you everything you need to know about the movie before you even watch the trailer or see a poster. But before you shrug and say "been there, done that," allow me to state my case here.
The Old Guard probably won't blow you away with style or aesthetic sensibilities, and it certainly won't win you over with subtlety. But what it lacks in blockbuster pizazz it makes up for with a group of lovable characters that, critically, love each other. And that alone is enough to set it apart from the pack, if only by a nose.
The story of Andy (Charlize Theron), the de facto leader of a group of four immortal warriors, finding and welcoming a fifth, the newly immortal Nile (KiKi Layne), into the fold, The Old Guard plays out like one of those ephemeral fantasy/action flicks from the early 2000s--you know, the ones with names like "Push" or "Jumper" that hinged on a protagonist who wasn't a superhero but had some sort of superheroic power. The rag-tag group struggles with maintaining secrecy, finding purpose, and keeping busy; problems that become exponentially harder when they're put in the crosshairs of a megalomaniacal pharmaceutical CEO named Merrick (Harry Melling) who wants to use them as lab rats to unlock the secrets of eternal life. It's not a multi-faceted or surprising story, and it never tries to be. Even the twists feel brushed off and downplayed in favor of telling the simplest version of the story possible.
There are plenty of fight scenes--some of them are even very well choreographed--though the gore is almost entirely mid-range visual effects. Unfortunately, almost every fight scene is also punctuated by some truly baffling background music choices, all of which really just emphasize the unavoidable "early 2000s" vibe of the whole thing. But who doesn't love watching Charlize Theron throwing punches with efficiency and finesse?
Even with the simplicity and bare essentials approach in the plot overall, the exposition could be generously called clunky. It mostly comes care of extremely on-the-nose narration and flashbacks that, like the visual effects, seem budget and utilitarian at best. There are no major revelations about morality, war, or immorality to be found. If The Old Guard is trying to make any sort of artistic statement, that statement would be "immortal warriors are a very cool concept" and, you know what? It's not wrong. At least it's never confusing or difficult to follow.
Where The Old Guard really excels is with its characters and their relationships. These are people who have spent hundreds of years in one another's pockets, and they behave accordingly. It's satisfying to watch them fight like a well-oiled machine from the jump, and what little backstory we do get for them packs a punch. In refreshing defiance of genre norms, the romances that get the spotlight are entirely queer. Immortals Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) are lovers who met during the Crusades and share the only onscreen kiss of the film. Andy lost someone not-so-subtly hinted to be a girlfriend or a wife. The low-hanging fruit that would be a love story between Andy and her right-hand man, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), is circumvented in favor of a platonic friendship.
It's not enough to make The Old Guard feel altogether fresh or new, but it does scratch a very specific itch that queer genre fans like myself constantly struggle with. Sometimes it's just nice to see a part of yourself in even the most predictable of popcorn movies--and sometimes that's more than enough to make a movie that would be otherwise forgettable feel memorable and special.
The Old Guard may not be reinventing any wheels, and it's certainly not going to go down in history as a watershed moment in cinema, but it will be a welcome watch for anyone who's looking to kill some time this weekend while stuck at home. It's streamlined, simple, and, depending on your age demographic, maybe even a little nostalgic; making it a worthy watch for 2020's barren summer blockbuster season.