In its fundamental premise, the comic book series The Old Guard was made for modern movies. The mighty Marvel machine has fundamentally changed expectation for how big and booming action needs to be on screen in order to hold an audience’s attention, and the Image-published comics, created by writer Greg Rucka and artist Leandro Fernández, is suited to the scope. The story concerns a band of centuries-old, seemingly immortal soldiers doing bloody battle against malicious forces. Imbued with rapid healing powers that are an easy sell to filmgoers thanks to the recurring screen appearances of the mutant known as Wolverine, the scruffy, surly heroes can throw themselves into cataclysmic scrape with abandon, confident that a bullet to the brain can be shaken off like a stubbed toe. Blood and mayhem splatter generously, and the good guys keep charging forward like cartoon coyotes or steel-skeleton terminators.
The film places its primary focus on Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron), who is gracious enough to answer to Andy. She’s the leader of a quartet also populated by Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). This particular band has been together for at least four times as long as the Rolling Stones, and Andy is growing disenchanted, feeling like their efforts as literal social justice warriors haven’t improved humanity one iota. Any plans of retiring from the smashing up villains game are forestalled by the emergence of Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne), the first new immortal in a couple centuries. An enlisted U.S. Marine, Nile fortuitously has the requisite chops for discharging firearms and trading blows. She’s quickly put to the test when the crew comes to the predatory attention of a Big Pharma CEO (Harry Melling, answering the question of what it would have been like if Peter MacNicol had gone from Ghostbusters II straight into playing a Bond villain). Crunching bones and spattered fluids ensue.
Working from a screenplay written by Rucka, director Gina Prince-Bythewood brings a laudable verve to the material. The action scenes are dynamic without being hyperkinetic, and generally moves the film along with a fine narrative clarity. It helps that the story is quite straightforward once the superhuman basics have been established. There’s thankfully not a lot of lore to sort through (any questions about why these individuals have powers is met with a disinterested shrug) and the characters and situations operate in alignment with well-worn paradigms: the grizzled leader reluctantly pulled into another mission, the neophyte who learns the ways of her strange new clan. And there’s little evident interest in adding nuance or complication. When Nile expresses reluctance about taking up a life of constantly killing in the name of the greater good, her stand against violence lasts about one scene and is undone with nary a whiff of remorse.
In its crash-and-smash way, The Old Guard is robustly entertaining. Back in the olden days, when there was such a thing as movie theaters (ask your grandparents about them, kiddo), this is precisely the sort of feature that would satisfy a certain deep, slightly shameful urge about this time of the summer. The film gives of itself generously — in volume, in fight choreography, in burst blood packs — and demands so little devoted thought in return. The enhanced abilities of the characters are cleverly just enough of the time, and the performance have charm and presence. Perhaps what these trying times truly demand is Charlize Theron swinging an elaborate bladed weapon. We could do far worse.