The Old Guard

3 out of 5

Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Comic book writer Greg Rucka’s oeuvre is littered with material that’s ripe for either TV or movie adaptation.  Some of these have been jumped on already, to greater or lesser success; some are eternally waiting in the wings while fans nervously await the possible fulfillment of this-could-be-great-if-done-right potential.

It’s not that Greg writes for these cinematic mediums (or at least, I don’t feel that he does), rather that his strengths – very realized action sequences, tailored for his artists; clearly thought out worlds, almost always a hop, skip, and step away from reality; deep and identifiable character sets – are capable of crafting / allowing for such memorable, immersive experiences that you can’t help but start doing dream casting and thinking of what real people might look like jumping across the screen and swinging a sword or an axe as whichever artist has artfully arted them or whatnot.

Coming amidst a veritable deluge of idea dense, world- / lore-heavy comics, Rucka delivered The Old Guard, which immensely pleased me by keeping some high level concepts – a team of immortals who’ve kept themselves busy over centuries by taking up odd jobs here and there and then disappearing into the shadows – but then going for something of a back-to-basics approach: good guys; bad guys; action.  This relative simplification begged even more for someone to put it to film, and here we are with Netflix, doing some inspired hiring – director Gina Prince-Bythewood has an impressive resume, though they’re most romantic dramas – and their own bit of dream casting, putting Charlize Theron in the role of immortal team leader Andy, and getting Rucka to deliver the screenplay himself.  Boded well.

Unfortunately, I’m here reminded why comics, despite also being a visual medium, can be the most ideal format for their stories, even when said stories are grounded in sweat and bullets and other doesn’t-require-a-mega-billions-budget-to-bring-it-to-life elements: the colors, the lettering, the pacing, and even the constraints of 22ish pages – these are all tools that can be used to render scenes and dialogue that might otherwise fall flat or seem predictable or generic amazing, and while these tools could be said to be comparable to lighting, or a film score, and etcetera, they’re different tools all the same, and so you can’t just port the baseline – your characters, their words – from one to the other and expect it to translate without some work.  Rucka does his best to “scale up” for a movie, but it mostly amounts to putting in words for where the art in the comic or beats between panels explained all we needed to know; as such, every character feels watered down, and the energy gained by having an accessible bad guy – an evil scientist who wants to detain our immortals and “study” them for profitable exploitations – is, in this format, boiled down (or bloated up, perhaps) into a faceless stereotype.  Prince-Bythewood does help capture the character dynamics of the ‘guard’ well – giving room to a good set of actors to give their performances a believable sense of having lived for eons – but does prove rather lacking in the action department – beats don’t really land; there’s no sense of stakes or impact – despite some solid choreography that often appear to include the actors themselves.

This is, rather obviously, me reacting with the source material in mind.  Trying to separate that, The Old Guard is certainly a competent action movie, and remains entertaining for its two hour runtime, but often due more to some emotive acting than its high concept or action, and its rather predictable plot beats.  If I went into this cold, I would see it as a rather average DTS Netflix entry, but with the positive takeaway of there being a comic to check out, if I was so inclined… (and then wrapping around to comparing the two again anyway…)