How ‘The Old Guard’ Reboots the action genre

Analyzing history, review, theories and more.

To begin, let me take you through the deep, tacit history of modern hip-hop.  There’ve always been a ruling champ, or two. The champ is the undisputed king of rap at that point in history and the number one hiphop hitmaker. It wasn’t enough that you were gifted in the art – you had to be able to sell chart-topping records.

Seven years ago, after a quarter of a decade’s battle, it came down to three superstars. Their names were Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole. Well, you see, Drake was the cocktail guy. He put rapping and singing together in a way that has never been done before. Kendrick Lamar reminded everyone of the greats; his energy and flow was fresh but reliable. J. Cole was the dexterous storyteller. He was even some sort of a hybrid: combining the other two to effective results but less of a hitmaker.

It was down to these three young’uns and the hip hop community was curious: who would take the crown? They were all less than five years in mainstream consciousness but previous crownbearers seemingly passed the torch to each of them.

Incidentally, some remarkable events took place after 2013, especially a bizarre win at the 2014 Grammy Awards and these 3 sort-of went “Fuck it, I’m done.”  Not done with hip-hop or music but done with fighting over a crown. And they, this is all just metaphorical, took the crown and smashed it. So there was no longer a crown or a king. For a while, all that mattered was, “How many shards of the allegedly ‘platinum’ crown are in your possession?” But that was soon over and there’ve been no king ever since. But several kings. And you can rule as long as you’re capable – alongside every other king.

So glad you’re still with me.

Nine Months after that fateful Grammy award, an action film that would change the action genre as we knew it was released. John Wick.

John Wick, former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s directorial debut, was calculative, inventive (very inventive), excruciatingly fun and still made a huge sum at the box office. It wasn’t the big budget action machine with too many explosions than characters. (It goes without saying that having Keanu Reeves as the lead was the icing on the cake — or the cake itself depending on your priorities.) It was the first time a film that has the guts to let you hear how a punch really sounds (while also introducing the world to a new type of martial art, Gunfu) would make it big critically and commercially. And that kickstarted a tradition of more unpretentious action flicks. Even the big budget coperations started  paying attention to details.

Fastforward to 2020, there are three John Wick films (each one better than the last), a dozen John Wick-esque films all contributing their quota to the genre and more stuntmen are making films now. Just one flaw though. The shards of the action film’s directorial crown never left a circle. Anything outside these guys rarely gets paid attention to. Primarily because others weren’t as good but supremely because no one’s had enough faith to hand anyone without a good track record an action film with potentials of sitting at the Wick roundtable.

Now this is where The Old Guard comes in. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, screenwriter and director notable for Love and Basketball, The Secret Lives of Bees and Nappily Ever After(writer). Yes, those movies. Right here, she gleefully adapts Greg Ruka’s graphic novel into one of the best action films ever made since 2014 by being calculative, inventive (very inventive), excruciatingly fun and Charlize Therony spotless.

The trailer didn’t do much when it dropped over a month ago. In fact, apart from the seemingly fresh story (in the genre, at least), everything else could piss you off if you’re a teeny bit sensitive: one black girl and Chiwetel Ejiofor to punctuate and ask plot questions (What’s this place? Why can’t we die? Why does this have to keep happening in movies?), Netflix affiliations and ambitious fight scenes. But the film itself was a different story.

One thing that has marred previous (though successful) attempt at the Wick Table was plausible storylines to hold every element together from falling off when the gunshots starts. They’ve mostly failed.  It’s hard to point out the plot’s exceptionality without spoiling anything so as per my new tradition, *skip one (the next) paragraph if you haven’t seen The Old Guard and want to approach this film undiluted –without knowing any plot details*

Led by Charlize Theron’s Andy, these group of immortals, vampires if you’d indulge me, have literally lived through history; fighting mankind’s battle and staying off the grid to hide their secret from the world. One day, in the present, a distraught widower, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Copley lures them into a trap and now their secret’s out and they need to protect themselves by tying up loose ends while also grooming Nile, who just discovered she can’t die, the immortal ropes.

In less than a year, Netflix has released three big budget action films: 6 Underground, Extraction and The Old Guard. With Guard, you don’t have to focus on the behind-the-scenes action and try to figure out if a cameraman is hanging onto a moving vehicle or they just bolted it in. Nor is this group of painfully uncoordinated mercenaries. Guard leads you to the dancefloor (fight floor, if you will), leaves you at the edge, then effortlessly directs your eyes to regard its gloriously bloody ballet and occasionally, when the beat changes, it twerks out bullets and wraps with a dab of visuals.

The weapon of choice here are guns and swords. And from the very first time a sword is drawn you know it’s about to go down. I’m trying hard to remember the last time a gun and sword combo graced the big screen but it doesn’t matter because from now henceforth, any other SwunFu (that’s what I’m calling it, tentatively) film has to live up to this.

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Whenever the plot needs exposition, the film does it with action and elaborate fight scenes. And every single action scene has its own story. That’s not how it’s taught in Screenwriting 101 but further buttress my point.

You think you have it all figured out, the plot, but it keeps opening up new pages that even if you were able to predict some, the action pulls the rug out from under you that you’re either screaming at your screen or staring mouth agape.

Unconventional title cards tell us when they are in Africa, Middle East and Europe. Bad Photoshop tells us these guys were around in the World Wars, MLK’s conferences, as far back as the 1100s. The rich-bastard villain is a shibboleth. But all these contribute to the fun the script brings.

Expensive dialogues and priceless blurts. One half-spoken “Motherfu…” solidified the first half. There’s an “infantile” scene that’s making it rounds in the internet as I write this. Truth is, The Old Guard, though reaching us at a very sad time in history (hmn), has infiltrated the zeitgeist and, I dare to say, will define it for at least the rest of the decade.

I have a small table I draw before I start seeing any film. Depending on genre. For Guard, I drew Action, Music, Direction, Stunts, Writing/Story (cancelled out cinematography). I’m to score as I see fit. For Music, I had a 100%. The opening song Born Alone, Die Alone by Madalen Duke probably has hypnotic abilities embedded in it. Then the score, the selections, the “are-you-ready-for-a-fight-scene-in-a-few-seconds” tunes, all draw you in with their cohesiveness and timeliness and beauty.

Are there cons? Of course, it’s weird (and even a lil bit offensive) that the pictures of school girls in Africa kidnapped by militants is used to lure these warriors into a trap in a film with a The CW-like poster (two black people to balance it out).

*You know yourself. Skip next paragraph to avoid spoilers and continue reading.*

Gina Prince Bythewood’s attention to detail is brilliant. But Ruka’s script had me guessing Booker was a traitor 15 minutes in and I wasn’t even pissed when I found out I was right. Instead of a clumsy Nigerian hiss, I noiselessly punched the air celebrating, “I knew it.” One theory I had that wasn’t confirmed though: “Something happened between now and South Sudan.” No one knows why Andy lost her immortality. But my guess is an immortal loses its power when a new one’s found but it’s random. That’s what happened to Lykon, the first one who died, when Quynh joined the first team. So, Andy lost her immortality cos of Nile. Just a theory.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Old Guard’s four horsemen are a deadly bunch and the actor’s behind Booker, Joe and Nicky (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli respectively) are thoroughly invested in the roles that you don’t care about their real names in the credits (is that a bad thing?) except you have a crush. With this team, a franchise, even a series, could be born. Or Netflix could put them in the same universe as 6 Underground and Extraction for an Avengers-like culmination if they are thirsty but I’m sure they’ll do the right thing. (For that culmination thing, hit me up Netflix. I’m game).

My critical consensus is that in spite of The Old Guard  having some of the best fight scenes in the entire genre’s library, it still gets everything else right which has been a taboo for previous money heavy action events.

For the first time in a long time, there’s a breath of relief on the future of action films. Matrix doesn’t need to be rebooted. Charlize Theron do not have to be in the Mad Max: Fury Road prequel. And John Wick can stop at the fourth one. Because there are no specific kings any more. The Adam Driver-long crown has been broken and anyone can be king. It can be the director of High School Musical or the guy who made Artemis Fowl. But for now, let’s take a deep breath, and out, and celebrate Gina Prince-Bythewood, the first black female to helm a comic book film and the solo director who rebooted the action genre and pressed start. Let the tournament begin.

The Old Guard = 9/10.

Remember those three younguns in hiphop 7 years ago? Well, one of them is no longer confined by the genre and is now the biggest single artist in the world; one became the first hip hop artist to win a Pulitzer prize; and the other became the first rapper in 25 years to go platinum without features. And they did all that alongside a thousand other kings. Thank you for your time.

Hi, I’m waiting for you in the comment section.

  • Can I keep the SwunFu name? It’s cool, right?
  • What do you think about my theory? You got something better?
  • Are you pissed I didn’t praise Charlize like everyone else? Baba, it goes without saying but you can tell me more.
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Okiki Adeduyite

One thought on “How ‘The Old Guard’ Reboots the action genre

  1. […] How ‘The Old Guard’ Reboots the action genre: I couldn’t contain my excitement after seeing the film and it prompted this lengthy piece that’s more wish fulfilment than it is an article. I crammed in years of knowledge into one single thought but why it makes this list, despite the contentious 9/10 score, is because my feelings about this film were fully conveyed that you could almost see the sparks in my brain. You can read this love letter here. […]

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