Friday, July 10, 2020

Live, Die, Repeat: THE OLD GUARD

For a comic book action film, The Old Guard keeps its scale smaller than you’d expect, the better to remain atypically attuned to its characters and the consequences of their actions. Adapted by Greg Rucka from his own comic book, the screenplay about a quartet of immortal warriors is relatively down-to-earth for its outlandish premise. The tone is set early when we see Charlize Theron, as the haunted leader of the group, gunned down, contemplating if this is the time she dies. Smartly, the movie knows we might not care if invulnerable characters get hurt, and so makes them vulnerable in other ways. For one, we’re told that at some point, centuries in, they won’t wake back up after a fatal blow. They just don’t know where and when. Worse, they’re not exactly dreading that day. After hundreds of years alive, doing great violence at little physical cost, the psychological cost is weighing on them. Not to mention having to see humanity’s patterns of ugliness cycle again and again. Theron, taciturn and chilled, seems particularly worn down by this. She and the others (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) want to fight for justice, to make the world a better place. But one look at the news, and Theron wonders if all their fighting has actually made a difference.

Among these characters, there’s this palpable sadness and boredom with their long lives and strange powers; they’ve been there, done that. One spark of life comes from a potential new recruit (KiKi Layne), a solider who survives a surely fatal cut to the neck and starts communicating psychic visions with our lead quartet. That it's all new to her, giving her reluctance a different flavor, is a good contrast. When she marvels at their unflinching violence meted out against bad guys, she’s told Theron has “forgotten more about killing than entire armies will ever learn.” And yet, for all the action — blood and bullets spraying freely, at least when there’s not a battle ax around to do the job — the movie dreads it. How terrible that it has become old hat. How hard it is for our heroes to think all they’ve done is ultimately to little effect. Their newest member looks upon all this and wonders if she could ever be like them. After all, spectacular violence may come easy, but living with it is difficult. Credit for this unusual sensitivity to the effects of comic book violence surely goes to director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Up to now, she’s blessed us with warm, sensitive dramas like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, beautiful, romantic movies closely attuned to their characters emotions, every catch of breath, or shift of gaze. Here death may be old hat to her heroes, but it’s no laughing matter to the filmmaking. Every gun shot or blade slice hurts, even when it seals back up in time to keep the fight moving. She weaves in some horrific concepts in their backstories, and is keenly aware of how much they can lose in the present.

And yet the genre has its demands. The central action conflict of the film comes when an evil pharmaceutical company — led by a callow young tech (Harry Melling) — hires an investigator (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to capture these ageless warriors and drain them for research. That explains the waves of armored goons arriving periodically, and sets up a few fine set-pieces. But it all comes back to that mood, so well sustained throughout. Sure, the dialogue is frosty pulp, with a few terse one-liners sprinkled throughout. And the world it sets up has its intrigue. But it’s not in a hurry to balloon to apocalyptic stakes. Instead it sits with these characters and understands their reluctance, their pain, their confusion. It thinks somberly about the toll it takes to kill and be killed over and over and over. Sure, it’ll slay the bad guys with some style and choreography. But it’s committed to a low minor-key and small, contained sequences. In true modern comic book movie fashion, it sets up more than it knocks down, and even has a little teaser of a scene before the end credits that promises a sequel could be bigger, wilder, and deeper. What does feel complete is Prince-Bythewood’s vision, which extends her sense of thoughtful interiority to a genre that often lacks it.

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