Who wants to live forever? Nobody with any sense at the end of the day, when you give even the most cursory thought to what that would entail. Evolution would make you a freak, cherished relationships will eventually hold the same significance as a one-night stand because of your perception of time accelerating, you’d have to work very hard to keep it a secret lest you get rumbled and never left alone again, and any passion that you have in life will ultimately become meaningless, because ‘life is short’ is the backbone sentiment behind throwing oneself so heavily into the activities that give you purpose.
But damn it if it doesn’t make for some thoroughly awesome media. Highlander, Interview With The Vampire, Mr Nobody and The Man From Earth are just a handful of films that tackle the concept of immortality in unique and invigorating ways, serving up food for thought which, in some instances, breaks nicely through a popcorn veneer, and addressing conceptual paradoxes in ways that are both cutting edge and ludicrous. The Old Guard, an action thriller released on Netflix last Friday, plays with the device of infinite lifespans against a backdrop of shoot-’em-up insanity and dastardly corporate shenanigans.
Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron), or ‘Andy’ as she prefers, is the leader of a crew of immortal mercenaries that also consists of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). For several millennia, the quartet has been working contract jobs fighting in major civilisation-forming conflicts, taking on rescue missions and generally kicking the asses of scumbags who contravene the moral order. They’ve lost other comrades along the way (their variety of immortality doesn’t preclude death, it just decreases the likelihood by some margin), and are now unsurprisingly very battle-scarred, cynical and exhausted.
Hired to extract a group of abducted youngsters in South Sudan by CIA operative James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the group are killed during an ambush by soldiers only to quickly regenerate and vanquish their foes, accurately deducing that Copley had engineered a set-up to expose their top-secret death defiance. Meanwhile, a young U.S. Marine in Afghanistan named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) dies from having her throat cut while zoning in on a target, before reanimating with all of her injuries faded. Utterly bewildered, Nile becomes straight-up terrified when she experiences a bizarre dream involving the central undying soldiers of fortune, and it transpires that this weird oneiric interlude is how their kind seek each other out. Andy arrives to escort Nile to her new life as an immortal warrior for justice, making it perfectly clear that she has little to no say in the matter in a couple of nicely choreographed fight sequences.
Steve Merrick (Harry Melling) is the pompous and diabolical CEO of a pharmaceutical company that is currently conducting trials on life-extending technology, and he has brokered a deal with Copley to facilitate the capture of our heroes so that they may be studied and utilised in Merrick’s quest to bestow longer life and an end to suffering upon the world. He makes it explicit from the outset that he is motivated by the staggering lucrative potential of the venture, typically supplementing it with pretensions to philanthropy. The everlasting 5-piece need to pool all of their guile and might if they are to defeat this odious ratbag and his private army.
First and foremost, the film is unmitigated bubblegum. That isn’t to say that Greg Rucka & Leandro Fernandez’s source material comic book (which I admittedly haven’t read) didn’t produce an imaginative and badass idea, and this as-I-understand faithful adaptation provides rip-snorting entertainment, but it certainly isn’t the cerebral, Nolan-like high concept saga that a couple of 5-star reviews doing the rounds have portrayed it as. The flashback sequences to our heroes in centuries past and their resulting jadedness certainly injects the work with a modicum of poignancy, but there is no pervasive existential dissection of the wider ramifications of immortality, and it would have done itself a service had the group’s chronology been handled more substantively as opposed to the tidbits that you’re allowed to glean along the way. Ultimately, it conveys itself as an excuse for extended action sequences, much like John Wick’s beagle pup.
But, is it solid? Absolutely. All of the performances are grounded and highly effective, particularly Theron, and the combat sequences have a fluid and palpable brutality. Aside from Theron, a standout is Schoenaerts as Booker, the hulking, burnt-out warrior whose gruff taciturnity betrays both deep psychological wounding and ambiguous motive. The camaraderie works nicely, galvanizing the audience for their impending showdown with Merrick. Melling proves to be a great choice for the Big Bad, his creepy, megalomaniacal and thoroughly British corrupt businessman throwing in a fun little wink to Hollywood’s inclination to cast Brits as complete and utter bastards. Ejiofor, who retains his English accent but explains to the central characters that he was born in the US and therefore eligible for CIA employment, cuts a slightly more sympathetic figure as Copley, a man given to ideological naivete rather than the malevolent greed that drives the other antagonists.
It’s loud, it’s fun, it’s predominantly coherent, and it uses its central conceit in a serviceable manner, neglecting to explore the concept deeply but not outright squandering it either. It appears to be layered in a way that makes room for franchising, so we’ll see how that goes (I never hold out much hope, but when was pessimism any good for you?), but as it stands, it’s a quirky and engaging feat. Just don’t go in expecting anything groundbreaking, and I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time.