Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood; Starring: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling. 15 cert, 125 mins
“I intend to live forever, or die trying,” Groucho Marx supposedly once said. That’s more or less the guiding philosophy of The Old Guard, the seemingly indestructible squad of mercenaries battling their way down the epochs in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s sleekly enjoyable new film.
“So are you good guys or bad guys?” asks Nile (KiKi Layne), a US Marine and the team’s newest reluctant recruit. “Depends on the century,” shrugs Joe (Marwan Kenzari), who joined the gang during the Crusades. The Old Guard’s members don’t have much in common, but they all share an ultra-rare genetic mutation which confers immortality of a sort. For one thing, it means they don’t age. For another, it makes them near-impossible to kill: their bodies spit bullets back out like cherry seeds, while wounds that should be fatal zip themselves up in seconds.
Their leader is Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron), of mythological fame, but these days she goes by Andy, and has swapped her Trojan battle garb for a black t-shirt and skinny jeans. With more life than she knows what to do with and nothing obvious to live for – she forgot the faces of her mother and sisters centuries ago – Andy has set herself an ongoing mission: to travel the globe and find others like her, who can help nudge the course of human history down a better path, as they see it. In short, think Rambo crossed with It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s all about making whatever difference you can just by being there – ideally with a machine gun in hand.
Action-fantasy is hardly par for the course for Prince-Bythewood, whose speciality is passion under pressure – I’d count Love & Basketball, her debut feature from 2000, among the greatest romantic films ever made, while 2014’s Beyond the Lights is one of the most heinously overlooked in recent years. But she and screenwriter Greg Rucka (adapting his own series of graphic novels) skilfully tease out that particular aspect of their heroes’ plight.
As much as The Old Guard is about good guys evading and exterminating bad guys – the leader of whom is a grasping biotech wunderkind, played by Harry Melling with a shiver of pure psychopathy – it’s also about navigating a world in which almost no one else is like you, remembering to treasure the companionship you can find, and mourning that which you lose.
In that respect alone, The Old Guard is a better X-Men film than the last three X-Men films combined, and its most effective scenes tend to be low key and character-driven. There is a beautifully played moment where Theron’s Andy slips into a French pharmacy and asks to use the bathroom – and the (female) employee wordlessly intuits that she’s in trouble, and leads her to a storage cupboard instead. Women silently sharing information about dangerous men is a recurring theme here, though the film doesn’t strain for topicality: it just lays things out as they are, and recognises that even genetically advanced mercenaries have to live in the real world.
The same applies to the gay romance between Kenzari’s Joe and his squad-mate Nicky (Luca Marinelli), who met on opposing sides of a holy war in the 11th century, but have since more than reconciled. Their relationship isn’t restricted to coy hints and nudges for online “shippers” either, but spelled out with an ease that’s totally disarming, and makes you despair at Hollywood’s general heel-dragging when it comes to this stuff. Trust me when I say that there is a romantic monologue here – delivered by Kenzari around halfway through the film – that is going to be quoted in marriage vows.
It’s a pity that the action sections of The Old Guard are so much less distinctive than its down-time. The usual carefully rehearsed quick-cut brawls in grey corridors and chambers are in plentiful supply – but none of it packs much of an imaginative punch, and the drab London-set climax has a premium BBC drama feel that causes the plot’s stakes to stall at the very moment they should soar through the roof.
It’s a film that’s rewarding to spend time with, with a substance-over-style approach that’s entirely commendable, and all too rare in films of this type. Even so, a sliver more style might not have gone amiss.
The Old Guard is released on Netflix on Friday July 10