Watching Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new movie The Old Guard, I was reminded of another Netflix actioner: last December’s 6 Underground. Both films involved a covert group of mercenaries who live off the grid. But whereas Michael Bay’s movie was total fucking garbage, Prince-Bythewood shows her peers how it’s done by creating the best Netflix action movie thus far. The trick of Prince-Bythewood’s movie is that rather than simply investing in lavish set pieces and coasting on charismatic actors, the director and screenwriter Greg Rucka put in the work of making you care about these characters. The action is still top-notch, but the film never shies away from its more melancholy and darker aspects. It makes for a tricky balancing act, but Prince-Bythewood pulls it off with style to spare.
Andy (Charlize Theron) is an immortal warrior who has been fighting for millennia. Along the way, she’s picked up fellow immortals Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) and lovers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) to help her in various missions. When the team gets a new gig, it turns out to be a trap sprung by the mysterious Mr. Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at the behest of pharmaceutical company CEO Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to exploit the immortals and sell their abilities. Forced to go on the run, the team’s lives are further complicated when they learn of a new immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), a marine who now discovers she can’t be killed. As Andy and the team work to evade capture, they also try to bring Nile into the fold and show her the purpose of their missions even as Andy wrestles with an existential crisis of feeling like nothing she does matters despite living for thousands of years.
After knocking it out of the park with the acclaimed romances Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, Prince-Bythewood shows she has no trouble helming an action vehicle. What I liked best about these action scenes is they never stop to draw attention to themselves. Like our heroes, the action is clean, quick, efficient, and brutal. The design flows from how the characters behave rather than Prince-Bythewood setting up an elaborate oner to show that she can. Other Netflix movies have tried to sell the action as a virtue in and of itself, but Prince-Bythewood knows that character is key, so while it’s all well and good to see Theron destroy a bunch of faceless goons by wielding an axe, it’s more important that we sympathize with Andy and her arc.
Those character arcs help separate The Old Guard from other Netflix movies like 6 Underground, Extraction, and Spenser Confidential. Every member of The Old Guard gets treated like a real person, and that matters when you have supernatural elements like quick-healing and immortality. Bythewood and Rucka play to the somber reality of these characters never being able to die, and rather than playing it up like a cool ability, the filmmakers latch on to the sadness of it all. For Andy, she feels like she hasn’t done any good because she’s unable to see the full scope of her actions. Booker has a heartbreaking monologue about how if you try to live normally, your loved ones will resent you for staying young while they grow old and die. Nile has to come to grips that her inability to die means leaving behind her family. Bythewood invests these character beats with as much energy and attention as the action scenes, and The Old Guard is all the richer for it.
I also have to call special attention to the relationship between Joe and Nicky. While other studios are trying to earn brownie points because a character has an off-hand gay moment that can easily be excised for international release, The Old Guard is unapologetic about having two of its action heroes be romantically in love with each other. If Joe and Nicky got a spinoff, I would watch it gladly as Kenzari and Marinelli sell their action chops and chemistry in equal measure. There’s a scene where Joe proclaims his love for Nicky with such passion and ardor that it’s as charged as any highly choreographed gunfight. Again, it all comes back to character, and for a film with franchise potential like The Old Guard, I’d be more than happy to spend more time with these people and their centuries of baggage.
Although Netflix likes to follow formulas to the point where it feels like some of their programming is developed by algorithms instead of people, The Old Guard shows the value of using the formula as a springboard to something better. It starts out in the same place of a bunch of mercenaries on a mission mixed with a little superhuman ability, but because Prince-Bythewood puts her characters at the forefront of the movie instead of a bunch of set pieces or one-liners, she has a much stronger movie. Thanks to her skilled and thoughtful direction, The Old Guard feels new.
The Old Guard arrives on Netflix on July 10th.