For all the painful absences of this summer, it has been a season blessedly bereft of superheroes.
No, they’re not all bad. And there is much of the normal rhythms of the movies’ main-event months to be nostalgic for. But one thing I haven’t missed is the unending business of franchises — their perpetual erection, expansion and, occasionally, hopeless collapse.
For better or worse, world building is on us this summer. And that has, in many ways, been a good opportunity for further examining the kinds of stories that get told and who tells them.
Netflix’s “The Old Guard,” on the surface, seems like it gives us what the summer has been missing. It’s a starry, big-budget adaptation of a graphic novel about a band of immortal warriors led by Charlize Theron. And to a large degree, it supplies much of the absent superhero stuff. Visceral action sequences. Torrents of bullets. A blatant set-up of future installments.
But “The Old Guard,” while in many ways typical, is wonderfully unconventional in all kinds of less obvious ways. Its characters, even the long-living ones, are recognizably human. Emotions like melancholy and doubt — both of which are normally checked at the door by Marvel — have been allowed in. The world all around is — gasp! — realistic.
Much of this is owed to Gina Prince-Bythewood, the filmmaker of “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights” who here brings her naturalistic and soulful touch to the kind of genre movie she hasn’t previously tried.
This would, just in filmmaking terms, be an exciting leap in scale for a not-well-known-enough directing talent. But it’s also history-making. Prince-Bythewood is the first Black woman to direct a comic book film. And, while the material isn’t special by any means, Prince-Bythewood subtly bends the sensibility of the superhero film in fresh and newly flexible directions.
Theron plays Andromache the Scythian (Andy, thank goodness, for short), a seasoned warrior of 6,000 years. Virtual immortality has come to her and a few others as a mysterious and uncertain gift, or possibly, a curse. With her are Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), a veteran going back to the Napoleonic Wars, and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), a pair who fought on opposite sides of the Crusades before following in love.
The concept, from the comic by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the script), is promising. Like a militant band of Zeligs, the group has stealthily swayed pivotal moments of history and battle through the centuries, but Andy is doubting their usefulness. “The world isn’t getting any better,” she says, wearily glancing at a TV news broadcast from Syria. “It’s getting worse.”
When we first meet them, we don’t know that they’re anything but run-of-the-mill mercenaries. They dress in black and carry big guns. They’re hired for a job by former CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to save schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan, an apparent reference to the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria. But when they go to the underground location, they’re gunned down. Lying on the floor, their eyes flicker to life like rebooted laptops. When they rise and mete out their revenge, the real trap — a watching camera placed by Copley — is revealed. Their secret is out, and soon a multinational pharmaceutical company is after their blood.
A story line that encompassed more of the group’s secret sway through history would have been nice, but “The Old Guard” instead deals with this threat to the warriors’ survival. The actors, particularly Theron, convincingly capture the dynamics of a group whose relationships go back eons. They might be largely immune to death, but they’re still haunted by it, and visibly uneasy about their place in the world. “The Old Guard” is about the heavy weight of duty.
The film also ropes in a potential new member. KiKi Layne, the breakout star of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” plays a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan who, after having her throat slit, finds herself miraculously healed. Her fellow soldiers eye her suspiciously, but she’ll soon find a home with the immortal four.
Partly because Layne stands out so much as a performer, I wonder if “The Old Guard” should have begun the story with her, immersing us in the confusion that follows her discovery. My other quibble would be that the upside of being immortal warriors means you can use much more interesting and elegant weapons than guns. Maybe centuries of warfare would have soured Andy and the others on gun violence.
It’s one of many missed opportunities for “The Old Guard,” which doesn’t have nearly as much fun with its undead characters as, say, Jim Jarmusch’s very tasteful vampires in “Only Lovers Left Alive.” “The Old Guard” could have surveyed a history of violence just as Jarmusch’s characters soak up humanity’s works of art. Instead, it feels more locked in the present.
But maybe “The Old Guard” means to save something for the sequels it baits at the end. Fair enough. This summer, I’ll let it pass.
“The Old Guard,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for sequences of graphic violence, and language. Running time: 125 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Image credit: AP
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