In the early 1960s, writer Michael Moorcock created Elric of Melniborné. The albino emperor of a dying kingdom, he is weak and sickly until he acquires Stormbringer, a black sword that transforms him into a near-immortal hero. But the cost is great. The life energy Stormbringer grants Elric is drained from the people he kills, and the sword is always hungry for more blood. Constant death is the price for eternal life.
As Moorcock's writerly fame grew, he expanded Elric's world into a multiverse, eventually revealing that the antihero was an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, a supernatural warrior fated to incarnate and kick ass when the cosmic balance tipped too far off plumb. It was not a new idea. General George S. Patton believed he was the reincarnation of a Roman legionary and a Napoleonic soldier. The idea that immortality would be more curse than blessing goes back to the Wandering Jew, a man present at the Crucifixion cursed to live long enough to see the Second Coming.
- Charlize Theron plays the immortal Andromaché of Scythia in The Old Guard
Despite being hugely influential on modern fantasy, Moorcock's works haven't gotten the film adaptation treatment. The closest we've come is Highlander, a franchise responsible for both some tasty '80s cheese and the worst film ever made. (Highlander II: The Quickening is the answer to the unasked question, "What would it be like if an insurance company made a movie?")
Enter The Old Guard. Based on a comic series by Greg Rucka and directed by Love and Basketball helmer Gina Prince-Bythewood, the Netflix film introduces Andromaché of Scythia (Charlize Theron), a nigh-immortal warrior who has been taking names for several thousand years. She impersonated the goddess Athena, rode with the Mongol hordes, and advised General Grant at Vicksburg. Andromaché — Andy to her friends — has assembled a tight-knit group of fellow long-lived freelance sword-swingers to take on good causes.
But after centuries of intervention, Andy has come to believe it's all in vain. She's coaxed out of retirement by CIA agent James Copely (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to help rescue a group of trafficked Sudanese kids in the sprawling Juba refugee camp. But when Andy arrives, she finds a setup: Someone has gotten wind of their immortality, a secret they try very hard to keep. They can't be killed, but immortality has its own drawbacks, like being locked in a prison cell for decades. Or even worse, trapped at the bottom of the ocean, drowning afresh every few minutes like Andy's first partner Quynh (Veronica Ngo), the victim of a Puritan witch hunt.
- Luca Marinelli, Theron, Marwan Kenzari
Copely is in league with pharma CEO Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to study the immortals and sell their secrets of instant healing. As Andy and her friends Nicky (Luca Marinelli), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) regroup, they are bombarded with psychic visions from Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a Marine who wakes in Afghanistan after being pronounced dead from a mortal wound. The companions must save Nile from the clutches of the military industrial complex while keeping a step ahead of Merrick's private army.
The good news is, The Old Guard is better than Highlander II — but that's true of literally every movie ever. Mostly, that's due to the presence of Furiosa. Theron is among our finest actors, and while not every film can be Monster or Mad Max: Fury Road, she needs material worthy of her gifts. This ain't it. I would have settled for another Atomic Blonde, a Theron-led beat-em-up which at least showed some stylistic panache. Instead, The Old Guard is mostly a slog. It wants desperately to appeal to the John Wick cult, serving up long sequences of Andy and company shooting and slicing their way through legions of faceless security contractors.
Staging and editing action sequences is an exacting art. I'm on record as Wick-skeptical, but I admit the Keanu Reeves vehicle delivers the goods. If pop-soundtracked ultraviolence is your thing, you'll recognize that The Old Guard is not top flight. Prince-Bythewood gives over to the temptation of using every angle she can shoot. The John Wick movies at their best shoot their stunt performers like dancers in a Gene Kelly movie — long takes of full-bodied frames, so you can appreciate the athleticism. (Sadly, this is what we get instead of An American in Paris.) The Old Guard takes four cuts to show our heroes simply walking down a hill.
In the occasional emotional moment, Prince-Bythewood's talents become more apparent. Theron's Andy is soul-sick from the constant killing. Nicky and Joe are lovers, and they get a nice moment professing their love while chained in the back of a police van. But then, there's the inevitable non-ending designed to set up a lucrative franchise, and it all kind of feels pointless. In a world plagued by too much mortality, the problems of immortals seem very remote. The Old Guard is streaming on Netflix.