The Old Guard, Netflix’s new action film from director Gina Prince-Blythewood, is in a constant state of conflict with itself. The premise— an immortal group of warriors from throughout history fighting to improve the world— clearly has potential, offering a number of creative ways to approach character, theme, and fight choreography. But, with franchise potential in its sights, the filmmakers leaned heavily on convention.
The arc of the plot is largely obvious, the characters are thinly written, and the movie spends more time brooding over its interesting questions than asking them. Cliché constantly threatens to smother whatever keeps us engaged, but like flowers peaking up through cracks in concrete, that initial creative potential surfaces in often unexpected places. Curiously, those opposing forces might have balanced each other out enough to give Netflix what they were hoping for: a solid first outing that seeds enough interest to justify a second chapter.
After millennia of fighting battles on humanity’s behalf, protagonist “Andy” (Charlize Theron) has grown weary of her immortality, losing faith in her ability to make a difference in an increasingly chaotic world. Exposed by a digital world, she and three others mysteriously gifted with regenerative healing, find themselves hunted by a pharmaceutical company looking to synthesize their abilities, and they are forced into temporary hiding. When U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) becomes the first to join their order in over two centuries, Andy is forced to take action to protect those she cares about, struggling to overcome her apathy and impart a sense of purpose to her newest disciple.
Despite falling clearly into the elite-but-disillusioned action hero archetype, Andy works as a protagonist because of Theron’s confident performance. Sliding easily into the role of badass, she gives the ancient warrior just the right mix of competence and enigma, hinting at depth of character left unexplored— that depth may or may not exist, but even the illusion of it does a lot for the viewer. Chiwitel Ejiofor does similar work holding his sketched-out former CIA agent together, and Henry Melling (continuing a promising breakaway from having been Harry Potter’s muggle cousin) makes his one-note villain pretty fun to watch. But the undying lovers Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) are sure to be the fan favorites among the supporting players. Their relationship is only the most frustrating instance of hinting at fascinating material without properly exploring it, and one can only hope they take center stage in any potential next installment.
Visually, The Old Guard leaves a lot to be desired in every area but one: the fight scenes, shot with thrilling clarity. The sustained focus on the bodies of the actors adds stakes to the combat so that we gleefully cringe with each deadly blow, despite actual death being off the table. Though the choreography only takes full advantage of the premise in the last act, the constant mix of guns and blades is an inspired choice that foregrounds the fighters’ unnatural age. Most crucially, these sequences are very entertaining, and this script would never land as it does without them. The action is enough to make The Old Guard worth seeing, but if Netflix does manage to turn it into a franchise, I hope they take more creative risks with whatever comes next.