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Josh Reviews The Old Guard

Netflix’s new film The Old Guard is an adaptation of the terrific comic book series of the same name by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández.  Charlize Theron stars as Andy (short for Andromache), a warrior who is thousands of years old.  She and a small group of fellow immortals have found one another and now work together as an elite combat unit who take on impossible missions when no one else can help.  But in the twenty-first century, it’s become increasingly difficult for these immortals to hide their existence from the world…

The Old Guard is a fun action-adventure film.  I love the concept, and the film has been very faithfully adapted from the first mini-series of the comic.  (This makes sense as The Old Guard’s creator and author Greg Rucka is also the sole credited screenwriter on the movie!)  The film was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees).  It’s awesome to see a woman of color given the helm of a comic book adaptation.  I think Ms. Prince-Bythewood does a great job with the adaptation; the film has terrific action but is also nicely centered on the characters.

The cast is top-notch.  Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the immortal warrior Andy.  I’ll probably never love Ms. Theron more in an action role than I did her spectacular work in Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s not really her fault that every other action role she takes can’t quite live up to Furiosa.  Ms. Theron is great here!  She nails the physicality of the role — she’s fantastic in all the action sequences (And I’m so glad that they gave Andy her very-specific weapon from the comics) — and more importantly, she’s able to bring Andy’s crushing world-weariness to life.  She plays the “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” attitude perfectly, giving weight to the burden Andy carries without becoming too dour (which would have sunk the film).

KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is fantastic as Nile, a U.S. marine in Afghanistan who — after getting killed on patrol and then coming back to life — is sucked into Andy & co.’s crazy world.  Nile is the audience surrogate character, as it’s through her that we discover this story.  This could have been a boring, flat character in less capable hands, but Ms. Layne makes Nile the beating heart of the story; even more than Charlize Theron’s Andy.  Ms. Layne is terrific in exploring the shock and horror that Nile feels at discovering that she has forever lost her old “normal” life.  If future sequels lean even more heavily on Nile, I’d be delighted.

Matthias Schoenaerts (The Drop) plays Booker, a Frenchman.  Mr. Schoenaerts looks a lot different than Booker did in the comics, but I loved his performance and I think this younger, more virile version of Booker is an even more interesting version of the character than what we got in the comics.  The conflict between Booker’s inner anguish — we learn that he still struggles with the ugly way things ended with his family members, who all grew old and died while he lived on, unchanging — is emphasized in the film, and that’s a positive change.  The scene in which Booker tells Nile that story is one of my favorite scenes in the film; it’s beautifully performed by Mr. Schoenaerts.

Marwan Kenzari plays Joe and Luca Marinelli plays Nicky; the two fought on opposite sides in the Crusades but eventually met and fell in love.  I must confess that I didn’t love Mr. Kenzari’s work as Jafar in the recent Guy Ritchie remake of Aladdin (he was a bit to one-note villainous), but he’s phenomenal here as Joe.  His declaration of love for Nicky late in the film was one of my favorite moments in the original comic and I’m so glad it made it into the film; Mr. Kenzari was perfect in the scene.  Overall, I loved the low-key humor he brought to the film.  Mr. Marinelli doesn’t have as much fun stuff to do, but he’s solid in what he has.  I loved the relationship between these two characters in the comic, and Mr. Kenzari and Mr. Marinelli do a solid job in bringing this love story to life on screen.

The great Chiwetel Ejiofor (who will always, for me, be The Operative from Serenity above all else) is always a treat to see on screen.  He has a relatively minor role here as James Copley, a CIA agent who hires Andy’s crew at for a rescue mission at the start of the film; the inciting act which then kicks off the entire story.  When I saw that Mr. Ejiofor was cast in this role, I’d wondered if they would bump up the character’s role in the film, but they kept it very consistent with the original comic.  That’s good and bad, as I’m glad the comic has been presented faithfully, but I’d have loved to have seen more here for Mr. Ejiofor to sink his teeth into.  (We get a little of this when we get the story of Copley’s wife, late in the film, but I wanted more.)

Harry Melling (who played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, and who had a terrific but small role in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) plays a villainous pharmaceutical company CEO, Steven Merrick.  Mr. Melling is fun to watch on screen, but the role is far too one-note evil to suit me.  (This seems like a script problem more than a fault of Mr. Melling’s acting.)

Comic book writer Greg Rucka has been having a hell of a year.  His series Stumptown has become a pretty decent TV show, and now here is this movie!  It’s cool that Mr. Rucka was able to write the screenplay for this film adaptation of his comic book series.  That doesn’t usually happen!!  I love how faithful an adaptation this movie is of the first Old Guard mini-series.  That, also, doesn’t usually happen!  Even in, say, the Marvel movies — which have been incredibly faithful to the tone of the characters they’ve adapted — they’ve never really done a straight adaptation of any particular comic book story.  It’s very cool to see how direct an adaptation The Old Guard film is.  I also enjoyed seeing the small places here and there where Mr. Rucka and co. expanded upon the original story.  (I liked the bit early on in which Andy is able to perfectly identify the origin of the baklava she’s eating.)  There was really only one significant change to the source material — the late-in-the-story secret we see that Andy is hiding about what’s going on with her immortality — and, frankly, that change puzzled me.  Was this just to give the film’s climax more danger, so Andy would be in more jeopardy?  Is it to give them a way out if movie-star Charlize Theron didn’t want to appear in future films?

Clearly future films are the plan.  The film includes an epilogue which was taken directly from the second The Old Guard miniseries, which promises exactly what’s coming if a second film is made.  The second mini-series is great, so I’d love to see that adapted in a sequel film!

My main dissatisfaction with The Old Guard film is that it often feels smaller-scaled than what I’d imagined the epic film adaptation of this story might have been.  The film has a relatively small budget ($70 million, according to the internet) — that’s a lot of money, but it’s nothing compared to what most summer blockbusters cost these days.  The film sometimes felt to me as if the the story would have benefitted from a larger canvas.  For instance, the comic has more flashbacks to the characters’ pasts (such as when Joe and Nicky first met).  I can understand that those would likely have been very expensive and so had to be cut.  But I think it’s a flaw of the film that we don’t quite feel the international make-up and history of the characters.  (I don’t believe the film ever even mentions the real names that “Joe” and “Nicky” are short for.  If it did, it went by too fast for me to catch.)  I think it’s important that we get more of a sense of Andy’s crew having originated from very different cultures, and those flashbacks might have helped.  (Other aspects of the storytelling could also have helped with this, from additional dialogue here and there, to giving the characters more distinct wardrobes and weapons, etc…)

There were also some times when the film felt a bit off to me, like the storytelling wasn’t quite all working.  I’m struggling to pinpoint whether this was a problem with the script, or the directing, or the editing, or what.  Here are two examples that jumped out at me.  First: there’s what’s meant to be a joke, at one point in the film, in which Nile is told to wait for a “signal” from Andy.  Nile keeps thinking that the sounds of fighting from outside are the signal, while Booker keeps saying that’s not it, and she’ll know it when she sees it.  But the gag fizzles when the explosion that’s Andy’s signal isn’t much more spectacular than anything we’d seen of the fights in the previous few minutes.  That needed to be a much more spectacular explosion.  If they didn’t have the budget to realize that, even amping up the volume of the explosion in the soundtrack might have helped the beat land.  But as is, I thought it felt flat.  Second: the action climax of the film is a bloody extended battle in an office building in the middle of London, which ends when two characters smash out of a window and fall many stories to smash on a car parked on the street below.  When we see the surviving characters exit the building to leave, they walk out onto a quiet street (we don’t hear any screams or sirens or anything) with zero extras around.  It’s so weird!  How would the building not be surrounded by people, cops, firemen, etc.?  It bursts the reality of the moment; it makes it all feel fake to me.  And then, even weirder: when the characters get in a car and drive away, there is then ONE single shot in which suddenly we see lots of people come crowding onto the street, and several cop cars drive up.  Where were had all these people been until then??  Did they not have the money in the budget for cars and extras except for in that one single shot?  (Are these problems connected to the film’s budget, as discussed in the previous paragraph?). It’s weird.  There are several moments like this in the film, moments which for me keep The Old Guard a good film rather than a great one.

Despite those complaints, I enjoyed The Old Guard!!  It’s a very solid little action film.  This isn’t the epic spectacle of Avengers: Endgame.  Not everything has to be!!

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