In today's edition of "complaints inspired by a lack of movie theaters," I'm at that point where I'm really starting to miss the theater experience.
(No, this is not a "things that stink about the pandemic" article, it's going somewhere.)
I bring this up because I've been of the opinion that the theater-going experience can really enhance a movie, especially those with the sense of scale and excitement that studios bank on large-scale audiences accepting. Yet with recent offerings like Michael Bay's '6 Underground' and Sam Hargraves' 'Extraction,' Netflix seems to be an increasingly viable option for these types of films, including their new film 'The Old Guard.'
I was pretty convinced this was going to be pretty interesting once I heard Gina Prince-Bythewood was going to direct the project. At first glance, she might not seem like the obvious choice for a borderline superhero project given her resume of dramas like 2014's 'Beyond the Lights.'
That is until you dive a bit deeper and remember that she directed the pilot for Marvel's 'Cloak and Dagger' series (underrated and canceled too soon I might add) and was attached to Sony's Black Cat/Silver Sable project for years before it (seemingly) was adjusted for a TV series.
Then you add some rather intriguing source material, with comic writer Greg Rucka adapting his own source material (his Wonder Woman: Rebirth run is a personal favorite of mine) and a cast led by Charlize Theron: an actress who, in recent years, has really tried to build up new and exciting action material. Does 'The Old Guard' make its mark with such potential?
To put things simply: It absolutely works! In so many ways, 'The Old Guard' manages to be that rare kind of action movie; one that knows exactly what will draw the audience into its story, has a great grip on its style and tone, and boasts a cast that is fully capable of drawing out the emotional pathos of those elements. It may not have some of the frantic pacing of some of its contemporaries, but the results worth and adventure that feels this fleshed out.
Andy (played by Charlize Theron) is the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries, including Booker (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (played by Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (played by Luca Marinelli) who have aided in various causes and crusades for hundreds of years. They get recruited by a former CIA operative, James Copley (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who attempts to recruit them to rescue a group of captured children, but it's revealed that he set them up in an attempt to prove their existence as immortals.
As the group attempts to track down Copley to keep their secret, another development comes in the form of an American soldier named Nile Freeman (played by Kiki Layne), who miraculously recovers after a botched military operation. The group discovers her, realizing that she is the first new immortal born in centuries. They rescue Nile who, initially struggles with her newfound abilities, but reluctantly agrees to join the team. All the while, the group is evading capture from Copley and his boss, the pharmaceutical CEO Steven Merrick (played by Harry Melling), who wants to experiment on the soldiers for their longevity.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood almost immediately sets the movie up for success, allowing the audience crucial moments early on to get us attached to the characters. Andy, Booker, Joe, and Nicky all have a very personal dynamic with one another and the film makes sure that we understand just how long these four have been doing their thing and how well they've gotten to know each other. You might think that this would start to get messy once Nile's story picks up steam, but miraculously it's the opposite.
Nile's story feels like both a natural extension of the team's narrative, as well as giving Nile proper weight and focus as a protagonist. Watching her get taken under Andy's wing is excellent because we get to see them evolve together as characters in their own unique ways, finding commonalities in their grief and potential purpose. Plus, it never forces the other characters to take a backseat; Booker gets to be more than just the brooding, second-in-command, and *Joe and Nicky's relationship is absolutely wonderful.
*Seriously, an LGBT romance in a comic book movie that feels this natural and developed is rare and we need more of them.
Action is only valid if we buy into the conflicts, and in the case of 'The Old Guard,' those conflicts present themselves in subtle, but incredibly effective ways. There are no world-ending cataclysms or some kind of traumatic vendetta here; instead, the risks are that our immortal heroes could not only have their gifts taken away, but exploited for the wrong reasons. It's a great way to keep the action exciting, but never driving the focus away from exploring some of the darker moments (some of which are downright horrifying when you think about them).
As for said action, it's also excellent. Prince-Bythewood, along with cinematographers Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd have a clear grasp on where to place focus during the film's set pieces and choreography. We know that these characters can't die, but that doesn't mean that they're invincible, and those kinds of conditions allow for fight sequences that are both fun to watch and have a visceral punch to them.
For as exciting and well-crafted as the film is, it isn't without a few small issues. The film definitely takes its time to get to some of its points, especially in regard to some of its exposition-heavy sequences. I've heard a handful of people deride some of the moments the film takes to slow down and, while I take them for what they add to the story, I won't argue that you could probably shave off 10 minutes in the middle of this movie and you wouldn't lose a lot.
Also, without going into spoilers, I was hooked on this movie and loving what it was going for...until the very last scene. I won't give anything away, but let's just say that for a movie that works so well in making its scale feel intimate, I personally thought the last scene felt way too on-the-nose and blatant (even though I understand why it's in there).
For as cliche as it might sound, I was so happy to watch something like 'The Old Guard.' Sure, it can drag out at a few points, and not every choice works, but Gina Prince-Bythewood's film is equally contemporary and fantastical, all with quickly likable characters, action talent for days, and legitimate depth to put it over the top. I would have loved to have seen this in the theaters, but I'll gladly take it on Netflix and I really hope that audiences will as well.
Overall, I give 'The Old Guard' 9/10.
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