The Old Guard: Revisiting an Exceptional Feminist Action Film on its One-Year Anniversary

Charlize Theron as ÓAndy in The Old Guard. (Aimee Spinks / Netflix)

In the wake of Friday’s release of Marvel’s much-anticipated Black Widow, and with another women-led action flick, Gunpowder Milkshake, dropping next week on Netflix (reviews of both to come separately!), it seemed like the right time to revisit director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s engrossing and frankly brilliant action film, The Old Guard.

Released exactly a year ago on Saturday, The Old Guard was overwhelmingly well-received by critics and was my favorite film of 2020, easily making it onto my end-of-year best feminist films list. And yet, the film is deserving of even more fanfare and continued accolades (especially with a sequel in the works). Consider this my The Old Guard one-year anniversary present, masquerading as a review.

Based on a comic book series by writer Greg Rucka and artist Leandro Fernández, The Old Guard tells the story of a group of immortal warriors destined to fight for justice across millennia and around the globe. While they supposedly fight for a greater good, the warriors have little understanding of exactly how their actions change the course of history, how their sacrifices actually make a difference.

An added twist: Each warrior’s lifespan is ostensibly infinite, but their status as immortal is indefinite. While they can be killed and rise again, fully healed, potentially hundreds or thousands of times, one day their death will be final—and they have no way of knowing when that day will come.

One of the film’s central tensions revolves around the training of a newly discovered warrior, U.S. Marine Nile (KiKi Layne), and the shifting motivations of the band’s leader, Andromache, or Andy (played with understated intensity by Charlize Theron), and her comrades: Nicky (Luca Marinelli), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts).

Andy is beginning to lose her way. She is the oldest among them by at least a couple millennia (although she won’t reveal her exact age, at one point she calls herself Andromache the Scythian, which would date her back to at least the 3rd century BCE). Andy has doubts about their mission, suffering a crisis of faith; the world seems to be getting worse no matter how many people they rescue, no matter how many battles they win. We later learn she is also wracked with guilt over the loss of her first companion, a warrior named Quynh (Veronica Ngo), whose capture and subsequent Promethean-like torture still haunts Andy.

Then, a dangerous rival and Nile’s training help bring Andy’s resolve back into focus. In order to perform their heroic deeds over centuries unabated, the warriors require anonymity, which also protects them from imprisonment and the abuses science and industry might wish to enact on an immortal body.  They chafe within the bounds of their responsibilities, constantly weighing the threat of discovery against their sense of duty in an increasingly complicated world. Newly recruited, Nile asks the others if they’re the good guys or the bad guys. “We fight for what we think is right,” explains Nicky, who met his lover, Joe, during the Crusades—on opposite sides of centuries of warfare.

KiKi Layne, Luca Marinelli, Charlie Theron and Marwan Kenzari are part of The Old Guard in Netflix’s film of the same name. (Netflix)

The Old Guard does many things exceptionally well, from both the meta-standpoint of representation and on the level of narrative and cinematography. It boasts two prominent and complex women in starring roles, myriad characters of color who stem from different nations of origin, and a central gay male couple whose deep bonds are explicitly acknowledged and honored. (There’s a touching scene, a highlight, where Joe gives an impassioned and poetic speech about what Nicky means to him in the face of an enemy’s juvenile mockery of their relationship.) As such, the film succeeds at a kind of inclusion along the lines of gender, race and sexuality that works seamlessly, making meaningful diversity look far simpler than most of the film industry would like us to believe.

The Old Guard succeeds at a kind of inclusion along the lines of gender, race and sexuality that works seamlessly—making meaningful diversity look far simpler than most of the film industry would like us to believe.

In terms of The Old Guard as a work of cinema, Prince-Bythewood’s direction is without reproach, as is the acting: The characters are nuanced and varied, the pacing balances fast and spectacular fight choreography with scenes that are almost meditative in their intimacy. While the fights are violent and bloody, including some difficult visuals that are viscerally painful, even the moments that may make a viewer wince in sympathy or shock never feel gratuitous. In The Old Guard, everything has its place and its purpose—cinematically and narratively.

The film’s high stakes immortality/mortality gamble and the fluctuating perspectives on purpose and meaning embodied by each warrior give The Old Guard an intellectual backbone that grounds its many heart-pounding action sequences. This philosophical undercurrent feels especially revelatory in the context of the last few years, when we are being constantly assailed by bad news.

Early in the film, one of Andy’s compatriots maintains that the team, “can do some good,” only to inspire Andy’s pessimistic rejoinder: “Have you been watching the news lately? Some good means nothing.” A year later, watching her response still feels more familiar than I’d like. Apparently, even immortal warriors get the blues.

As we each ask ourselves, what can I, one person, do that will possibly make a difference, The Old Guard reminds us that our influence extends further than we realize. The consequences of inaction may be dire, but the impact of “some good” can mean everything in the right place and time.   

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.