Pullbox Reviews: The Old Guard (vol 1) – From the page to the screen

“This is a fairy tale of blood and bullets.”

If there was nothing else going on, that tag line would have grabbed my attention. No idea how I missed this one, but I’ve got to stop sleeping on the titles coming out of Image. I hadn’t even heard of this one until I saw a trailer for the Netflix movie starring Charlize Theron. Now, having read the first volume & seen the movie, all within the last few days, I thought it was only fair that I work them both into a review.

I’ve gotta start out by saying that at this point I almost resent the fact that Greg Rucka can’t seem to write a crappy book. Whether he’s cranking out novels (Queen & Country and the Atticus Kodiak series) or comics (Lazarus, Stumptown, Black Magick) the guy’s got words and he knows how to use ‘em. In the case of The Old Guard, it would’ve been easy to settle in and tell a story about an elite group of centuries old warriors from all walks of life. In fact, that’s exactly what he did and if that had been all there was I would’ve read the hell out of it. Andy, Nicky, Joe, & Booker are the penultimate special ops team for hire, crazy good at what they do. But Rucka can’t just write a fast-paced action story… even when that’s pretty much what he’s doing. The guy might start out with a straight forward idea, but then he zooms in on the characters… who they are, who they were, and what it would really be like to be physically incapable of dying.

So who are the Guard?

Nicolo of Genoa & Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn al-Kaysani, called al-Tayyib (Nicky & Joe) go way back. Serving in the First Crusade… on opposite sides… the two first discovered their immortality when they killed each other. A lot. Over and over and over again, until the futility of it all finally sunk in. In the ensuing thousand or so years, their relationship has changed drastically. Comrades in arms, most certainly, but also on a deeper level that goes well beyond the shallow concept of “lovers”.

Sebastien Lelivre, aka “Booker” is the baby of the group clocking in at just over two hundred years old. Booker was a reluctant soldier serving under Napoleon as he began his march into Russia, and his first death came at the end of a rope… hanged as a deserter. Throughout his story, for better or worse, Booker is the strongest connection Andy has to this world and is the resident tech “expert”.

Andy. Damn. Where to start with this one? Played by Charlize Theron in the movie, Andromache is… she’s… well, she’s really damn old. A number is given in the comic, but in the movie she insists that she’s so old that she really can’t remember how old she is. The faces of her mother, father, sisters, have all long since faded from her memory and in her own words, she is “so fucking tired of it.” You name it, Andy has seen it, done it, caused it and is completely over it. She speaks every language ever spoken and is intimately familiar with every possible way to kill another human being. Above and beyond anything else, Andy just wants it all to end.

Wait, what about the “new kid”? Nile Freeman is a Marine (semper fi) serving in Afghanistan when she’s killed by an insurgent explosives expert. She’s young, both figuratively and literally, and is woefully unprepared for the life ahead of her, for however long it lasts. In the movie she’s played by Kiki Layne, and shows a little more reluctance to give up her past. She is in both versions, however, an excellent reflection for Andy’s stagnant frame of mind. Nile has strong family ties, and of all things an actual picture of her mother and brother, which Andy tells her to hold onto and to treasure for as long as she’s able.

All of those character depictions are carried over into the movie, with some outstanding performances laid out all around. Although Theron is without a doubt the name that carries the show, everyone has the screen time to show their qualities. In particular, I thought that Luca Marinelli (Nicky) & Marwan Kenzari (Joe) pulled off some great work, capturing many layers of two people spending a thousand years fighting and loving alongside each other. Likewise, KiKi Layne as Nile gave a great spin as an individual with the heart of a scholar coming to terms with the idea that her fight isn’t going to end when her enlistment expires. Booker, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, starts off as an anchor for the group as a whole and has what I thought was one of the deeper character arcs.

Visually, The Old Guard is one helluva piece of work in both of its incarnations. Illustrated by Leandro Fernandez and colored by Daniela Miwa, the comic is distinct and memorable. Fernandez’s designs can never be mistaken for anything else, particularly in the choices he makes in characters’ facial features. With that and the overall dynamic action he instills in his pages, this is a book that sticks the landing. The movie is filmed with such a great eye toward the cinematography & choreography that if the action was all that it had going for it, it would’ve been an entertaining two hours. With the book and the movie, a lot of effort is spent to emphasize the fact that these people understand violence and committing it as a team, to a degree that goes well beyond the best special forces operators.

Anytime a book, comic or prose, is adapted to the screen, there are dangers involved. In many cases, fans have a hard time dealing with changes made to the original work. In The Old Guard, there’s plenty that’s taken or adapted directly from the book, both in dialogue and story elements. Far from staying shackled to Rucka’s script, the movie takes its own direction in several new ways, giving anyone who’s read the series a few surprises. It’s a great balance of honoring what made the comic great but stepping sideways from it far enough to give me a couple “holy crap” moments I wasn’t expecting. I’d literally just finished reading it the day before I watched the movie, so it was all pretty fresh in my mind.

The other pitfall in movie adaptations is in the casting. I can’t say that Charlize Theron gives anything less than an awesome performance as Andy, and she does lend star power to the production, but I wonder what other choices could have been made. I can’t find the least bit of fault in any other aspect of the casting. Chiwetel Ejiofor is smooth as ever in the part of former CIA operative Copely. Harry Melling (last seen as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies) adapted the role of villainous tycoon Merrick, more physically dynamic & imposing in the book, to suit his own attributes.

Gotta say that I’m a fan of The Old Guard in both of these adaptations. It was a binge worthy read that has me very much looking forward to the second volume, and the movie was a great way to spend a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon. Both are full of character & action to satisfy most people looking for one form of entertainment or the other. Both come across as great introductions into what I hope is an ongoing dive into the world of the mortality-challenged. Take them both in, or divide and conquer if you’re not feeling the need to take that deep a dive, but both get my highest recommendation.

Final Score: 13/13

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