The Quarantine Stream: 'The Old Guard' is the Kind of Mid-Tier Action Movie That Can Thrive on Netflix
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: The Old Guard
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: An adaptation of the Image comic series of the same name, The Old Guard follows a team of immortal mercenaries who struggle with isolation and loneliness while killing bad guys. Lots and lots of bad guys.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Much has been said about how movies that receive a theatrical release have only gotten bigger and bigger over the years, leaving modestly budgeted films on life support. And while Netflix has its fair share of sins to answer for, one of its most quietly profound accomplishments has been to offer a home to films that, 20 years ago, would’ve been substantial hits, but now can’t stand toe-to-toe with $200 million blockbusters. The streaming service has seemingly single-handedly kept the rom-com from going extinct and The Old Guard is evidence that they may be able to do the same thing with smaller-scale action movies.
While The Old Guard is not the first original Netflix action movie, it’s the best and it’s not even close. What else comes close? Extraction? Nah. Bright? Hell, no. This is a comic book movie that feels like it fell out of the ’90s in the best possible way: it’s character-driven, stylish but grounded, and delivers sincere thrills powered by charismatic actors. It’s rock-solid stuff, where execution allows us to ignore the small scale. If this was made for theatrical release, it would’ve been either bloated to compete with Marvel movies or it wouldn’t have been made at all.
Based on the exceptional comic from artist Leandro Fernandez and writer Greg Rucka (who also wrote the film’s screenplay), The Old Guard functions first and foremost as a movie star vehicle and that may be its greatest strength. Charlize Theron is the leader of the above-mentioned team of immortal warriors and you can add Andromache of Scythia (or “Andy”) to her increasingly impressive list of badass action heroines. There’s the same steely toughness that made Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road so instantly memorable and the same physicality that made her work in Atomic Blonde so memorable. There is a magnetism to Theron that commands every shot she is in, a sense of expertise and weariness that allows the action around her to feel real, even when the super-powered characters are healing from fatal gunshots within seconds. What a remarkable performer she is. What a wise choice to build this movie around her.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood may not stage the most memorable action (it’s competent at best), but she proves herself in the other arenas and that’s what counts. The sense of isolation that pervades this film, the way these characters who have known each other for centuries communicate without having to talk, the sadness that pervades their lives as they search for meaning in their existence – it’s not high drama, but it’s approached with care from a filmmaker who gives a shit about the stretches between action scenes and allows them to matter. If the action here is underwhelming in a vacuum, it’s certainly elevated by the film asking us to care about the characters at the center of the danger.
The Old Guard is not a great movie. It’s a good movie. And honestly, that’s enough. In an era where studios have built themselves to build massive experiences and massive experiences only, an action movie this low-key isn’t just refreshing. It’s thrilling.
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