The Old Guard: Will @Netflix Bring Something New?
Making the transition from page to screen is a task fraught with challenges. The shift between the two mediums almost always means changing or even completely sacrificing something from the original. For the most die-hard fans this can feel like a betrayal, but sticking to the script 100% will rarely bring the best results.
I’d consider myself a huge fan of The Old Guard, a comic from Image that’s about to wrap up its second arc later this month. I’ve even written about it when it launched back in 2017 on this very website, and the book has gone from strength to strength since then. Written by Greg Rucka (Lazarus, and too many Marvel & DC titles to list here) and illustrated by the inimitable Leandro Fernandez, it tells the story of a mercenary team blessed/cursed with immortality. These soldiers of fortune are globe-hopping guns for hire, and centuries of experience will give you the skills to pay the bills. Think Highlander meets Jason Bourne.
Now with a feature film about to drop on Netflix, I’m both excited and anxious to see how it holds up. A lot of their stuff in this wheelhouse has been fairly ordinary shoot-em-up material, and that’s certainly one way to bring this to the screen, but there’s so much more to this book underneath the surface.
What grabbed me about the comic initially was Rucka’s writing, which has always had a solid foot in the crime/thriller genre but remains stylish and smart enough to keep me hooked beyond the mechanics of the plot. While his other Image title Lazarus currently seems trapped under the weight of its own ambition and scale, The Old Guard has been humming along for nearly ten issues, exploring the murky world of its characters with razor sharp dialogue and genuine emotional stakes.
The thing I hadn’t counted on was the artwork. Holy guacamole. The scope of Rucka’s story literally spans centuries and moves across the globe, and Leandro Fernandez continually knocks it out of the park each issue. The colors shift from subdued to vibrant depending on the scene, but always with a melancholic tinge to it, something that captures the overall weariness of the setting. There’s also a manic energy to the action that pulls the reader in. The characters are drawn with an angular, almost European style (which fits the backstory for most of them), and sometimes just a small little detail – a subtle facial expression or a wordless transition panel he throws in – will bring them to life.
Then he’ll go all out on a 6,000 year old battle scene with nomadic Siberian warriors going flipmode.
It’s little wonder that the book was optioned for the screen almost as soon as it dropped, but there’s always the chance that a film version will stick to the action and lose some of the quieter moments that really make the story work. However, looking at the team involved, I’m starting to think this could really be something special.
First of all, the cast. Charlize Theron plays Andy (born Andromache of Scythia sometime before Jesus), the leader of the Old Guard, while KiKi Layne steps into the role of Nile, a US Marine who becomes the latest member of the crew when she struggles to shuffle off this mortal coil in Afghanistan. Theron’s action chops are well established now post-Fury Road, but KiKi Layne is likely best known to audiences from her powerful turn in If Beale Street Could Talk. How she handles a film like this will be interesting to see. Rounding out the headliners is Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villain Copley. He’s originally white in the comic, but this has zero bearing on the story, and while I’ve been a fan of his since 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ejiofor play the bad guy.
But the real MVP may end up being the director Gina Prince-Bythewood. While she’s made some classic films like Love & Basketball, there have also been a lot of film and TV projects that never got off the ground over the past two decades since, seemingly because of her unwillingness to compromise or dilute her personal vision. Much like The Old Guard, she’s been around for a while and she doesn’t take any shit.
Don’t take my word for it either: Bernie Mac once called her “the quiet storm.”
Having a female director is important on this film, because the story of The Old Guard is anchored by its two main female characters. Nile the new girl, the audience surrogate in one sense, bringing us into this strange new world, and Andy, the battle-hardened veteran who’s seen it all. These are well-worn tropes of course, but Rucka injects them with new life. The combination of these characters under the helm of a director like Prince-Bythewood could create some real magic.
While the trailers until now have been pretty cagey with details beyond some fight scenes and the skeleton of a plot, it looks as though the film will cover the first arc of the comic (Issues #1-5). What will really be crucial is whether the relationships and motivations between some of the characters make the cut, but Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay) has been vocally adamant about a lot of this stuff being included. The ending is a real bittersweet gut punch too, so I’m hoping this doesn’t get cleaned up or dumbed down either.
It makes sense for a two-hour movie to focus on the tried and tested structure of a new team member learning the ropes and gaining the trust of the others, but we’ll miss out some of the great stuff in the later issues as the story expands. Given the millennia of backstory, this could have been made as an eight-episode series.
But there’s always the potential for a sequel, especially when you’re dealing with characters that won’t die.
The Old Guard is released on Netflix July 10.