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Friendship, queer love and big pharma in ‘The Old Guard’

If you can die a thousand times and always wake up, what is the point in living? This is the central, if unspoken, question in “The Old Guard.” The answer: friendship. “Friends are good” might not sound like a particularly hot take, however for a big, shiny superhero movie, this is quietly radical. In Netflix’s new summer blockbuster, the stakes at the heart of the film are not saving the world from a big bad John Cena or a big purple Josh Brolin. Instead, the soul of the film lives and dies with the bonds between the group of immortal, evil-fighting heroes, helmed by Charlize Theron’s Andromache (Andy, for short).

This is not to say that “The Old Guard” is lacking in action hallmarks. The film follows a quartet of immortal warriors, who have been fighting together for centuries, quietly protecting the world’s less privileged citizens from greed, corruption and violence. Our heroes are riddled with bullets, stabbed in the stomach and thrown off buildings. Each time, they get back up, tend to each other’s wounds and laugh it off with a snappy quip. The main villain is, of course, a White male pharmaceutical executive, because who could possibly embody evil better? Steven Merrick, played by Dudley from the “Harry Potter” movies, wants to harvest the immortals’ genetic codes in order to “do good”—for his shareholders.

“The Old Guard” makes you wonder why they keep letting Vin Diesel star in action movies when everyone knows Charlize Theron exists. Sure, Tom Cruise strapped himself to an airplane once, but Theron can, well, act…very well. All while doing some of the most exhilarating fight sequences I’ve seen in a long time. In the first act of the film, the team has to induct (read: kidnap) a new member. This leads to a hand-to-hand combat sequence between Andy and Nile (Kiki Layne) in a moving cargo jet. Nile is a twenty-something year old soldier who doesn’t understand how she’s survived having her throat slit, and Andy is a battle-born, war-torn veteran. It’s a fight between old and young, knowledge and denial. It’s unabashed, action fun and an emotionally serious scene. These characters’ lives are not, as in so many films, surrounded by violence, but forged in it. This scene also passes the Bechdel test—that checks to see if two female characters discuss anything other than male characters—which is simply very rare. 

The team of heroes at the center of “The Old Guard” is not only female helmed, but it also features two gay men who have been madly in love for hundreds of years. They’ve suffered and prospered through immortality together, and it’s the most wholesome (and objectively longest) love story to be featured in a recent Hollywood action film. It’s unfortunate that decent representation in a superhero movie warrants note, but until it’s the norm, “The Old Guard” earns its praise, both on screen and behind the scenes. 

What is most refreshing about “The Old Guard” is that director Gina Prince-Bythewood treats the heroes as humans first. Where Marvel or DC characters might spend entire films wearing souped-up Halloween costumes from Party City, Andy and the team wear human-person clothing, not only because they’re hiding, but because they’re “just” people who happen to have superhuman abilities. These characters, created by screenwriter and comic book writer Greg Rucka, face loneliness and heartache, camaraderie and joy. Their interactions are more Greta Gerwig than Michael Bay, which only makes the Michael Bay parts of the film feel more important. If you stripped away the costumes and VFX of “The Old Guard,” you’d have a Noah Baumbach-style family drama; the same treatment to an Avengers film would leave an empty soundstage.

Unfortunately, much of what I appreciate about “The Old Guard” is rooted in the shortcomings of its competition. After two decades of cookie-cutter superhero doldrums, a film doesn’t need a stroke of brilliance to gain praise and become the number one movie on Netflix; it just has to be solid. If the summer action offerings from Marvel and Christopher Nolan had reached cinemas, who knows if “The Old Guard” would’ve made it onto my radar at all? Regardless, I’m glad the holy Netflix algorithm decided to serve it up. “The Old Guard” won’t go down in history, but I’ll certainly remember it long enough to watch the sequel in a couple years.

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