Charlize Theron has had an interesting career. She started in the mid-90s as a model who acted, then earned a reputation as a skilled dramatic performer, leading to her Oscar win for Monster in 2004. Since then, she has proven an ability to do just about anything. However, it wasn’t until 2015’s fantastic Mad Max: Fury Road that she added action hero to her resume. She followed it up with the intriguing Atomic Blonde in 2017. Then came her third Oscar nomination (this year, for Bombshell). Now, she’s back to kicking butt in the comic adaptation The Old Guard (streaming on Netflix). It is not the best of her action movies, but it is probably the most ambitious in terms of themes and emotions. There is enough depth here for a franchise and it is the rare obvious attempt at launching a new series that actually makes me look forward to future entries.
Theron is Andy, the leader of a group of immortal warriors who have been instrumental in shaping world history for centuries. As the story begins, they are recruited for a mission by a former CIA operative. Of course, things aren’t as they seem and the team’s anonymity is put in jeopardy. Their quest to take out the people who set them up is made even more complicated by the discovery of a new immortal.
The Old Guard contains the expected violence (which is pretty good) and twisty story (which is okay). Where it surprises is in the way it handles the idea of immortality; specifically, what it means to its characters. It doesn’t just mean they can’t die; it also means loneliness, too much knowledge and the burden to keep going because others cannot. Though, for some, it can mean hope. Screenwriter Greg Rucka (who co-wrote the comic series) does more than use the concept. He explores it through these characters. Unlike too many comic adaptations (the misguided Hellboy reboot, as a recent example), the mythology comes out organically in oddly contemplative conversations about what their “gift” has given them. Or taken away.
This is the first try at action for director Gina Prince-Bythewood and she approaches it like a drama, not a genre exercise where plot and character are merely used to fill in the downtime between fight scenes. Not that the story isn’t kind of silly, but it is treated like it matters because the characters are treated like they matter. Theron and her costars are allowed space to establish personalities and relationships, instead of being rushed to the next set-piece.
Andy has the biggest backstory, with an unimaginable amount of pain mixed in with her heroic deeds. Her team is also fleshed out. Booker is driven by a major loss, while Joe and Nicky have an epic romance that is given far more weight than normal for a relationship between two supporting characters. Even the ex-CIA guy (played by the always effective Chiwetel Ejiofor) is given relatable motivations. The weakest link is Nile, the new immortal. That is essentially all there is to her. KiKi Layne does the best she can in the role, but she mostly gets used as a plot device. Maybe the sequel will let her do stuff.
In order for a movie to be interesting based solely on its action, the fight scenes better be remarkable. The action in The Old Guard is solid throughout, if not incredible. Yet it has enough to recommend it without having to rely exclusively on things blowing up real good to keep its audience’s attention. That lets the action feel like it comes from the plot, not like it is in place of it. There are a couple of fights in particular (one on an airplane, the other outside a church) that help a character grow just as well, and more efficiently, than if they had only used dialogue to express the same developments.
The Old Guard doesn’t break any new ground. What it does is cover old ground in a thoughtful and exciting way. It brings together talented people who understand the material (as well as the genre) and gives them a chance to do something cool with it. Though it has its flaws (pacing is its biggest issue), it capably fills the action blockbuster void created by the regular Summer season being effectively shut down. It also shows how good Charlize Theron is in basically anything these days, making it clear that any action movie she stars in is definitely worth a look.
3½ out of 5
Charlize Theron as Andy
KiKi Layne as Nile
Matthias Schoenaerts as Booker
Marwan Kenzari as Joe
Luca Marinelli as Nicky
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Copley
Harry Melling as Merrick
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenplay by Greg Rucka