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Notes On A Film: The Old Guard

In my recent review of first volume of The Old Guard collection, I said that I would review the film once it started streaming on Netflix, so this is me keeping that promise.

Before I watched the film, I had low expectations because the reviews weren’t recommendations (of the two-star variety, although James Dyer of Empire magazine revised the recommendation to three stars after watching it again). This meant I probably felt more disposed towards it, although it doesn’t mean I think it’s a great film. It’s OK: entertaining, particularly the action scenes, but nothing remarkable. Which is a shame, because I would be happy to see further instalments.

The film of The Old Guard more or less adapts The Old Guard: Opening Fire – Andy (Charlize Theron) is an effectively immortal, centuries-old (although not specified in the film, unlike the book) warrior who leads a team of similar near-immortal warriors: Joe (Marwan Kenzari), Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Booker (Matthias Schoenarts). They are hired to rescue kids by ex-CIA agent, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a very small role for such a famous actor – clearly brought in with the prospect of a franchise), which turns out to be a set-up and their resurrections are captured on film. Somebody now knows that they are immortal, so the team needs to control the situation. However, things are complicated by the arrival of another immortal: Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a marine in Afghanistan, so Andy goes to retrieve Nile to save her as well as control people becoming aware of any immortals.

Gina Prince-Blythewood directs well but without any real flair – an action film needs visual flourishes that make you go ‘Whoa’. She’s more interested in the characters, and the actors respond to this by giving solid performances. Harry Melling (forever to be attributed as ‘Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter’, although he is not recognisable any more) perhaps overeggs the pudding, playing the villain of the piece in an unnecessary, slightly over-the-top performance as the CEO of a pharma company that wants to make millions out of the team’s immortality, but he doesn’t have too much screen time. The extra dimension for Copley’s character seems unnecessary compared with the original comic books, but Greg Rucka – writing the screenplay in addition to the comic books – presumably had the plans in place for the subsequent volumes of the books, but it still jarred for me after reading the source material so recently. (By the way: kudos on Rucka for stipulating in his contract that the film had to include the declaration-of-love scene between Joe and Nicky – it was great in the book and it’s great here.)

An aside: I would see various items online about this film, which nearly all said it was Rucka adapting his graphic novel, with no mention for artist and co-creator Leandro Fernández. These were professional pieces edited by professionals – please do better because it’s offensive.

Another aside: I’ve also seen this film described as a ‘superhero film’. No, it isn’t – just because it’s been adapted from a comic book with a fantastical element in it, does not make it a superhero film. Superheroes are people in capes in shared universes with multiple sources of powers (mutation, aliens, genetic experiment gone wrong, radiation, etc.) – this is a fantasy film set in the real world. Are people calling Highlander a superhero film? No, they are not. (Which will be my only mention of Highlander, a film for which I have a lot of fondness despite its flaws, because the two films aren’t comparable apart from the single element of immortality in human history.)

Having said that the film lacks visual flair, I thought that the action scenes were really good – the actors put in a lot of practice before the film and really looked the part, and the choreography is impressive, which it has to be after John Wick set new benchmarks for how action scenes are shot and choreographed. The film coordinator, Danny Hernandez, has worked on the likes of Avengers Endgame and Birds of Prey, and he really brings out the quality of a team of soldiers who’ve been together as a team for two centuries, operating in perfect unison with each other, setting up kills or finishing off where appropriate, particularly in the big finale.

I know this will sound a little snobbish, but I do prefer the way the book handled the story compared with the film. Yes, giving Nile more character development in the film was a good thing, showing how someone responds to becoming immortal and grasping the concept of having to leave your life, family and friends behind, but the comic book didn’t have the space to achieve that because it’s the nature of pictorial storytelling to do the snapshots and barest dialogue. However, the way the end sequence veered away from the book seemed less satisfactory, the introduction of an element of jeopardy for a character just so we have the cinematic trope of dramatic tension and elevation of stakes completely missed the point of what the book was about, and the answer to the question, ‘What does a person who cannot die have to live for?’ that was answered in the books with the soldier’s answer of ‘The people you fight with’ was answered completely differently in the film, something that seemed a real stretch in logic and mathematics.

Another aspect of the film that grated was the setting up of the sequel. I haven’t read the second volume of the comic book yet, but subplot of another immortal who was a friend of Andy’s but put into a metal coffin and thrown into the sea 500 years ago is apparently the next storyline. However, in the film, it feels completely out of place and ends with the worst ‘This is the sequel’ moment since Mark Strong as Sinestro put on the yellow ring at the end of Green Lantern. (We’ll see if this franchise suffers the same fate.) The film had already laid out the framework for how the sequels will develop with a grindingly explanatory scene that basically turned the film into an extended pilot for a TV show (which could be called Chiwetel’s Angels, based on how it’s set up); it didn’t need anything else.

To summarise: I mostly enjoyed the film, I liked the actors and the action scenes, and I would be happy to watch a sequel, although I don’t think this film did enough to generate the demand for one. The film doesn’t dazzle or do anything special, but it’s perhaps not as bad as early reviews might make you believe. And it has a special mention in the credits – ‘Special thanks to the people of the United Kingdom’ – not sure what we did, but you’re welcome. I think.

Rating: DVD

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