20 August 2020: The Old Guard Movie Review
Major spoilers ahead! I am warning you right now because I love this movie and refuse to avoid talking about it, so if you haven't watched The Old Guard on Netflix yet, do so before reading this or otherwise just be prepared for a lot of spoilers. That said, I beg you to watch this movie and rate it with five stars because I want a sequel.
To preface this review, I want to state that I am fascinated by history, I love stories with overt queer and multicultural representation, and Charlize Theron is the action queen the world deserves. Now that's out of the way, let's dive in!
Here's the cast:
Andy/Andromache of Scythia - Charlize Theron
Nile Freeman - KiKi Layne
Booker/Sebastian Le Livre - Matthias Schoenaerts
Joe/Yusuf Al-Kaysani - Marwan Kenzari
Nicky/Nicolo di Genova - Luca Marinelli
James Copley - Chiwetel Ejiofor
Steven Merrick - Harry Melling
Quynh - Veronica Ngo
Dr. Meta Kozak - Anamaria Marinca
The movie starts with the Old Guard - Andy, Booker, Joe, and Nicky - agreeing to take a job from James Copley, a man they've taken a job from before and has approached them with a plea to help with a hostage situation in South Sudan. A group of school girls have been taken and are at risk of being separated, never to be found again, so Andy grudgingly agrees to take the job. They go to Sudan and reach the compound where the girls are being held, stealthily kill their way inside, and reach a room with shoes piled outside. They blast their way into an empty room, lights flash on, and they are shot by a firing squad. Moments later, the group heals and kills the militia, realizing that it was a set-up and their immortality has been filmed. Andy declares that they have to find Copley and dispose of the evidence, and then she doesn't care what happens to the world after that.
Cut to Afghanistan, where US Marines are looking for a terrorist and Nile, one of the Marines, is shown respectfully interacting with the local women. One of these women subtly indicates that the man they're looking for is hiding, Nile goes to apprehend him, and the man is shot. She tries to save his life because he's wanted alive, but he slits her throat and kills her.
Meanwhile, on a train, the Old Guard all dream of Nile and wake up, while she dreams of them and wakes in a medical tent. The group all compile what they remember about Nile in a notebook in order to identify her and, after some debate, Andy decides she'll go retrieve Nile while the rest continue to France and work on finding Copley.
Copley has met with a businessman named Merrick and shown him the footage of the group dying and coming back to life, so Merrick decides he wants the Old Guard captured so that he may use their genetic material for scientific advancement and profit.
While Nile is having a crisis about having died and come back with no explanation, Andy finds her, knocks her out, and kidnaps her. When Nile wakes up, she's in the back of a moving truck and she kicks the back open and rolls out. Very calmly, Andy stops the car and shoots Nile dead to stop her, then waits for her to revive before explaining that she is also an immortal and Nile can get answers if she goes with her. They reach a drug smuggling plane and fly off towards France, and Nile attempts to hijack the plane but Andy overpowers her in a fight and Nile eventually accepts the reality that she can't return to her normal life.
When they get to France, Andy and Nile meet the rest of the group at an abandoned church, where they are hiding out. The group explains a bit of their history to Nile: Joe and Nicky met on opposite sides of the Crusades, Booker fought with Napoleon, and Andy is older than them all, having been around since Ancient Greece, though she claims not to remember exactly how old she is. Overwhelmed, Nile goes to rest, only to later wake up from a dream about a woman who is drowning in an iron coffin, over and over again. Joe and Nicky explain that this is Quynh, another immortal who has a long and romantic history with Andy but was thrown into the ocean and was never found.
Nile goes outside for air, followed by Andy, during which time Copley and Merrick's militia attack the church, kill Booker, and kidnap Joe and Nicky. They return to the church and Booker revives, explains what little he knows, and Andy goes to slaughter the militia.
Joe and Nicky are captive in an armored truck and face some narrow-minded homophobia, at which point Joe gives an iconic speech, kisses Nicky, and then they knock out the militia. They're transferred onto a plane to be taken to Merrick, who explains that he's going to use them for his own profit and doesn't care about their consent.
Back to the other three, Andy has realized that she was injured and isn't healing, so she steps out while Booker explains to Nile why she can't go back to her family now that she's immortal.
Andy goes to a drug store and buys a bunch of medical products, unsure of what she needs, and gets help from the cashier, who reminds Andy that people are meant to help one another.
Merrick and Copley discuss the fate of the Old Guard, and Copley begins to understand that Merrick is more fanatical than he had realized and intends to lock up the group for as long as he deems it necessary. Meanwhile, Nicky and Dr. Kozak speak, and he subtly reminds her that the biggest fanatics believed they were helping the world as they committed atrocities, justifying their actions under the guise of progress. When Joe wakes up, he and Nicky reminisce about a romantic time together, saying they must go back.
Nile wakes from another bad dream and goes outside for air, finding Andy with her phone, and they discuss her family. Andy declares that she's going to rescue Joe and Nicky, whatever it takes.
Last minute, just as they're about to storm Copley's place, Nile decides that she's not going to go in and kill a bunch of people, that she wants to spend what little time she was with her family, and Andy allows her to leave, giving her the car and weapons to ditch. However, when Nile does ditch the weapons, she realizes that Booker had given Andy an unloaded gun, meaning Andy is in trouble.
Back at Copley's, Andy and Booker sneak in and find Copley standing before boards with pictures and articles about the group. Booker shoots Andy and reveals he's working with Copley because he wants to find a way to end the immortality. Andy isn't healing and when Merrick arrives, Copley warns that she could die in testing.
Nile arrives too late and has Copley take her to Merrick's building so she can rescue the group. She fights her way inside to the lab, frees the rest of the Old Guard, and convinces them to work together, and for Andy not to give up. As they fight their way out of the lab, Andy instinctively takes the lead and Nile has to force herself in front to protect Andy, who is now vulnerable as she's no longer immortal. The rest of the group compensates accordingly to protect Andy as soon as they realize what Nile is doing. As they fight their way through soldiers, they systematically collect weapons and ammo. They make their way to Merrick's penthouse, see the elevator going down and assume he's heading down, so the men go down while the women stay upstairs. At this point, Merrick comes out of hiding to attack Andy and Nile ultimately pushes him out of the building, and they plummet to their deaths, crashing down onto a car. Nile revives as the group reaches her, and they flee the scene before any witnesses arrive. Literally, there is nobody around until after they leave.
The group go to a bar to decide Booker's fate for his betrayal. Nile reveals that Copley will make it appear that she was killed in action so her family can grieve and move on. Andy then gives Booker the group's verdict, that he will have one hundred years without contact with them, and he admits that he hoped for less but expected more. They hug, on the sad note that they might not see one another again, but Andy tells him to "have a little faith."
The rest of the group returns to Copley's house to see the boards with all their impact and Andy decides, without giving Copley a choice, that he will be the one to find them jobs and cover their tracks from now on.
Six months later in Paris, Booker comes home drunk, his door already unlocked, and he finds Quynh in his apartment, pouring herself a drink while he holds her at gunpoint, then she says, "Booker, it's nice to finally meet you." This is where the movie ends.
Okay, because I want to get into the nitty-gritty, now I'm going to go into more specific details in the movie that I loved, sorry not sorry.
The film opens with shell casings clattering onto the floor and the camera panning over dead bodies with Andy's voice over: "I’ve been here before. Over and over again and each time the same question, is this it? Will this time be the one? And each time the same answer. But I’m just so tired of it." Just in these first opening lines, the audience already gets the sense that Andy is weary of her immortality, even if that immortality hasn't directly been revealed yet. Living such a long life, uncertain of when it will end, has worn her down and, in a way, she just wants it to be over.
When the title card for the film comes on screen, the song "Born Alone Die Alone" by Madalen Duke plays, which just amplifies that sense of loneliness that is created by immortality.
Andy is accidentally photographed by tourists, and she takes the opportunity to offer taking a picture for them in a sneaky way to delete the picture. This shows just how clever and resourceful she is, but it also foreshadows just how much of an impact she and the rest of the group have made on the world without realizing, how much Copley has found. Even as they try to be invisible, they're still leaving marks on history that they can't hide.
The casual intimacy between the group as they reunite with one another is also incredibly sweet to watch. Andy gives Booker a first edition copy of Don Quixote, while he adds booze to her tea without asking, already knowing she'd accept it. When she sees Nicky and Joe, she hugs them, even allowing Joe to spin her around. Nicky gives Andy baklava, knowing it's her favorite food, and they all joke around and make bets about whether she can guess its origin. They are so familiar with one another, they're family, knowing each other better than anyone else out of necessity because they're unique in a way the rest of the world can never fully comprehend. They have a connection, beyond immortality, with a desire to change the world for the better, and it has bonded them together in such a beautiful way.
I also just appreciated how the movie gave a realistic portrayal of everyday life in non-white countries and they don't use a yellow filter on the footage to make it appear more exotic.
When the group gets to Sudan and are passing by Sudanese women in traditional dress, carrying baskets on their heads, Nicky tells them, "Peace be with you" in Nuer, which is interesting on so many levels. First, because this implies that in their very long lives, the group has learned a variety of languages, even some that may be considered more obscure. Second, Nicky has an innate sense of chivalry within him, that appears consistently throughout the film, but it's exemplified even here, where he wishes these women well, in their own language, just because he feels it's the right thing to do. Third, he says this, not thinking of the implication of a bunch of white/light-skinned individuals passing by these women and children, openly carrying a bunch of weapons, and then saying, "Peace be with you." Like, these women were very likely thinking, "I'm not going to say anything because I don't want to set them off." Nicky has good intentions, but it's almost hilarious that he says this while carrying weaponry in plain view.
As the group breaks inside the compound the rescue the girls, Nicky consistently refuses to believe they've been set up. They enter the empty room and the first thing he asks is, "Are we too late?" and then after they're killed by the firing squad and revive, they slaughter them and he asks, "So where are the girls?" He doesn't want to believe that they were used, he just wants to rescue these girls he still believes are in trouble.
In Nile's introduction scene, as she and her fellow Marines are about to interact with the local women and ask them for information, Nile makes a point to tell the squadron, "Keep it respectful." One of the other women responds with, "Don't we always?" and she says, "Never hurts to repeat it." Just the emphasis on respecting the people they're interacting with, not giving anyone an excuse to forget that they aren't there to cause damage, is so great. She understands that these are people worthy of compassion and respect, regardless of their culture, and she makes sure that everyone around her remembers that too.
When the group has a dream about Nile for the first time, they all collaborate on putting together the details they saw in order to identify her, and Andy gets the most detail out of all of them. It's implied that she knows the most about Nile because, as the oldest in the group, she has more experience in picking out those details in the dreams, and perhaps she's seen more and is able to recognize it more easily than the rest of the group.
I also adore that Nicky is the moral center of the group. When everyone else is arguing about what to do, he says, "You can't tell me you don't remember what it was like. Whoever she is, she's confused, and she's scared, and she's more alone than she has ever been in her entire life. We all remember what it was like. She needs us." He relies on empathy and compassion in order to sway the group to his side, and it works because they know he's right. They can't abandon this woman, whose life has been changed forever, just because they don't want to deal with it or have other priorities. They have a responsibility to help her because they know what it's like to be in her position and feel that amount of pain and fear, and a good person doesn't wish that on other people or allow it continue when they have the means to stop it, or alleviate it in some way.
When Andy goes to collect Nile, Nile's first instinct is to break out of the humvee and run, and Andy is completely unfazed, she just shoots Nile to stop her and waits for her to revive. Even when Nile stabs her, Andy's more inconvenienced than anything else.
Nile is shown, throughout the movie, wearing a cross necklace, and when Andy sees her praying, it sparks an interesting theological discussion. Andy claims God doesn't exist, that she was once worshiped as a god and "none of it means anything anyway." Nile, however, holds on tight to her belief and tries to rationalize what's going on around her, including her newfound immortality, so Andy says, "You already believe in-" and she points up to God before she continues, "you should just keep following that illogic. You're already on board with the supernatural." Just the fact that Andy, who is from the era of Ancient Greece, possibly was pantheistic herself, then she died and became an immortal. That original religious belief was likely stripped away from her when she didn't move on to her conception of the afterlife, and then she "became" a god herself. She knows that religious power is a construct and is upheld only by the people who believe in it. She rationalizes religion as supernatural, possibly because she's never seen proof that any religion actually is correct, and she's seen the rise and fall of certain religious beliefs.
One of my favorite scenes is when Andy wakes up, handcuffed to part of the plane, while Nile attempts to hijack the plane. Andy speaks to the pilot in Russian before she shoots at him. The plane begins to descend and, as Nile is panicking, Andy claims she knows how to fly a plane in order to be freed. As soon as she is free, she asks, "You don't know how to speak Russian, do you?" And when Nile asks why, Andy says, "Because I told the pilot to play dead." At this point, she and Nile fight, and it's obvious that Andy is genuinely enjoying herself, showing off her skills and testing the new recruit. Andy is smart and knows how to manipulate a situation to her advantage, and she also has millennia of experience in different fighting techniques - as Booker later says, "That woman has forgotten more ways to kill than entire armies will ever learn" - which she enjoys using against Nile, not out of a sense of superiority, but she's enjoying being challenged. Nile is practically a baby compared to the rest of the group, but she's still putting up a fight and Andy respects her for that.
When the group is all reunited and eating dinner, Nile asks them, "So are you good guys or bad guys?" and Joe replies by saying, "Depends on the century." Nicky then elaborates by saying, "We fight for what is right." This is such an important exchange because it very simply shows that morality changes over time, what is perceived as "good" or "bad" changes with the century and the cultures, so they aren't concerned with law so much as their own personal morality. They may be considered "bad" by the law, but they are more concerned with upholding what they believe to be right than with being perceived as good or not.
I also love that when Andy tells Booker that Nile wants to talk to her family and he says it won't help, she emphasizes that he needs to be the one to tell her that. This is, obviously, foreshadowing to when he tells Nile what happened to him and his family. He later explains, when Andy is gone to get medical supplies for her injury, that he had three sons, the youngest of which was named Jean-Pierre, and he was the last to die at 42 from cancer. He explains that Nile can't go back to her family because, "You’ll always and forever be the young woman right there but everyone around you, everyone you love, is gonna grow old, is gonna suffer, and is gonna die. And if you try to touch their lives, well, they will get to learn your secret. They will beg you to share it with them and you won’t be able to. And they won’t believe you, of course. And they will tell you that you don’t love them. That your love is weak or selfish, and you will never forget the hate and despair in their eyes, and you’ll know what it is to lose everyone you’ve ever loved." During this explanation, we see a flashback of Booker at his son's deathbed, while Jean-Pierre is screaming at him, crying, begging, throwing things at his father. It's a heartbreaking scene and Andy knows that Booker is the best person to explain this to Nile, because he's been through it.
When Nile wakes up from the drowning dream and we learn the history between Andy and Quynh, the first thing I noticed was that Nile tries to dismiss the dream but Nicky insists that she share. It's just a very simple moment of recognizing that she's overwhelmed and needs to talk about what she saw. Additionally, it isn't directly said, but very heavily implied that Andy and Quynh were romantically involved, that they had a connection that went beyond just the immortal connection, the same way Joe and Nicky are connected. Because of this, when they're separated and Quynh is locked in the iron coffin and thrown to the bottom of the ocean, Andy has lost a part of herself. The fact that she was never able to find Quynh and she gave up, she feels guilty about it, especially because that was the person she thought she was going to spend eternity with. Finally, Joe and Nicky explained at dinner that the dreams of one another end when they meet, but what isn't said directly is that Booker is the only other one of the Old Guard who hasn't met Quynh, so like Nile, he is experiencing these dreams of her drowning.
Of course, the entire scene when Nicky and Joe wake up in the armored truck is just beautiful. Joe wakes first and is speaking in an outdated form of Italian to Nicky, calling him Nicolo, which again goes to show just how long these people have been alive. The soldiers try to stop him from speaking to Nicky, but Joe's retort is, "What are you going to do, kill me?" and eventually, Nicky wakes up and one of the soldiers mocks them, asking, "What is he, your boyfriend?" Before I even get into the speech itself, I want to talk about Nicky's sigh. He knows exactly what's coming, has heard it a thousand times before, and knows exactly how dramatic Joe is about to get. There is no stopping this speech, this grand romantic gesture, instigated by the words of an ignorant bigot with little understanding of the world around him, who has pissed off Yusuf Al-Kaysani and will now face his wrath. As for the speech: "You’re a child. An infant. Your mocking is thus infantile. He is not my boyfriend. This man is more to me than you can dream. He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness and the warmth when I shiver in cold. And his kiss still thrills me even after a millennia. His heart overflows with the kindness of which this world is not worthy of. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s all and he’s more." And even though Nicky has undoubtedly heard this speech a dozen times over again, he still says, "You're an incurable romantic" and they kiss, only to be torn apart by the soldiers. The next scene opens with those same soldiers falling out of the armored truck unconscious when the door opens. The only conclusion to be drawn is that Joe and Nicky knocked all of them unconscious for pulling their kiss apart.
When Joe and Nicky are brought to Merrick, it becomes very clear in the way he speaks and presents himself, that he is meant to be a representation of everything wrong with corporations. First, he introduces himself with a quote from King Lear, and then condescendingly explains when Joe and Nicky don't give him a reaction. One, it's very possible that they met Shakespeare and saw King Lear when it was first performed; two, the fact that Merrick acts like everyone should know Lear off the cuff is so indicative of his privilege. Regardless of the fact that these men are immortals, not everyone has an education that includes the Shakespeare folio, and even when they do, not everybody reads and memorizes Lear, and Merrick clearly thinks of himself as superior for having done so. Next, after Joe headbutts him, Merrick decides to stab him so he can watch the healing in real time, then asks, "What do you see?" Dr. Kozak, the woman spearheading this research, then says, "The Nobel Prize" and he says, "And a fair few quid to boot." Just in those three sentences, we get a bunch of characterization for both of these characters. Merrick has already proven that he values being at the front of innovation, having his name on something, but this is Kozak's moment to earn recognition. She wants to be recognized for her contribution to humanity, and the Nobel Prize is the ultimate win for something like that. For Merrick, though, it's another enterprise designed to line his pockets. He's already rich, but he wants more, just like any other capitalist. He claims that it's about helping people, but really, he just wants to feed his ego and hoard money. Merrick also tells them, "We brought a cancer drug to the market last quarter. It’s already saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet, in development, it killed a quarter of a million lab mice. Now, I didn’t ask for their little permissions. I’m not gonna ask for yours" and Joe's response is, "He thinks you're a mouse, Nicky." I love this. Not only does it undercut some of the intensity of what Merrick has said, makes him sound ridiculous, but it also goes to show that Merrick has lost his ability to see people as people, he's lost his humanity in a way that even these immortals haven't, after hundreds of years. Finally, Merrick also tells them, "There's genetic code inside you which could help every human being on Earth. We're morally obliged to take it." Not only does this mirror the lack of morality in corporations in real life, but it also serves as a parallel to when Copley and Nile are speaking. He tells her, "It was supposed to be a git to the world" and her response is, "It wasn't your gift to give." It's indirect, but there is an anti-colonialist message in that very simple exchange: you can't take what isn't yours.
The scene where Andy is in the drugstore to get medical supplies to treat her wound is great in so many ways. First, Andy has no idea what to get because she's never had to treat a wound before in this modern era, so she grabs a little bit of everything and some candy, as a comfort. Just the inclusion of that candy is so great, and it felt realistic for her to think, "This is some bullshit and I don't know what I'm doing, I deserve a chocolate." Next, the French cashier offers to help Andy and when Andy says, "You haven't asked", she replies, "The business is yours. You need help. What does it matter why? Today, I put his on your wound. Tomorrow, you help someone up when they fall. We're not meant to be alone." This reminder is so important to Andy; people help each other because it is an innate instinct to be compassionate and want companionship.
When Nile and Andy are speaking about Nile's family, Andy says, "You come from warriors." There's something so simple about that statement that emphasizes how much respect Andy has for people. The typical conception of warrior is the literal one, someone who fights in a war, but Andy applies that term to a single mother who works hard for her children to have a better life, saying in not so many words, that that is a war all on its own. She has so much respect for the struggles that Nile has gone through, that her family has endured, because she understands that not all fights are the same, but they're just as much of a fight.
Later, when Andy, Booker, and Nile approach Copley's to rescue Joe and Andy, Nile explains that she isn't going to go in and kill a bunch of people because she was trained how to kill but not how to live with it, and Andy's response is, "You've gotta feel it, Nile. Every one." Nile does try to brush this off by pointing out all the people that Andy had slaughtered in the church, but Andy's words still have weight. She knows she has killed thousands, perhaps millions of people, but she doesn't take it lightly. She has to live with the guilt of taking all these lives, not even sure that she's making a difference until Copley shows it to her. She knows that it's something serious and cannot be taken lightly, she understands that taking a life is not something you should become immune to because then you become like Merrick, who views human life as disposable.
When Nile and Copley get to the Merrick building, he tries to go in with her, and she has to point out to him that of the two of them, she's the one who will walk out alive, unlike him because he is not immortal. He ultimately accepts this logic and she goes into the elevator, where the song "Going Down Fighting" by Phlotilla feat. Andrea Wassa and Topher Mohr begins to play, and although we know that Nile is immortal, that the majority of the group is immortal, there's still a sense that this is the final fight and the stakes are very high.
During the fight, out of the lab and to find Merrick, a grenade is thrown, incapacitating Joe and Nicky longer than everyone else, and they're slower to recover and are left behind by the others. They do wake up and a soldier kicks Joe, so Nicky attacks him, only to get shot through the mouth. We later see Joe find this same soldier and he says, "You shot Nicky. You shouldn't have done that" before he flips him onto the ground, instantly breaking his neck. It's just so great to see the mutual protectiveness coming into play here.
Absolutely one of the best scenes is when the group believe Merrick has gone down in the elevator, so the men follow downstairs while Andy and Nile are catching their breaths, and Merrick surprises the two of them, pointing a gun at Andy and calling her a selfish bitch. In this moment, we get a wonderful callback to the airplane scene as Andy says, "Hey, Nile. Do you think he speaks Russian?" Instantly, Nile pretends to shoot Andy, who pretends to go down to grab her battleaxe from off the ground, and she slams it into his shoulder/neck area. When he doesn't immediately go down, Nile just rushes him and pushes them both out of the penthouse window before they crash down onto the car. The men step outside at this point, see the damage, and Joe just says, "Faster than the elevator." It's so good.
Afterwards, when the group returns to Copley's, they all look at the boards with the articles and photos he's collected, showing their history and impact, and he says, "This is only what I've found going back the last 150 years or so. When you think about how old you are, the good you've done for humanity becomes exponential." It's such a great moment because it really sinks in for Andy, that what she's been doing all this time hasn't been for nothing, she just couldn't see it, and she decides it's worth continuing. At this point, she tells Copley, "When we leave a footprint in the sand, in the snow, in the ether, you're going to sweep it. You're going to protect us from those who want to put us in cages, and you're gonna help us find those jobs that are best suited to us."
This film was, for lack of a better word, amazing, and it made me so happy as a feminist. Without going too much into everything (because this is already much longer than I had originally anticipated), I just appreciate the amount of care that was put into this film:
There is an obvious respect for the various cultures represented in the film
The film was directed by a black woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood
The characters are diverse both in culture but in sexuality
Quynh's character was originally Japanese, but they changed her to Vietnamese to because the actress, Veronica Ngo, is Vietnamese
They never sexualize any of the women
There is a blatant anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist narrative
There are more things to appreciate about this movie, but honestly, I've rambled enough about it and if you haven't already, you need to go watch it.