At some point, Charlize Theron did something unexpected – she became one of this generation’s top action stars. While tackling an array of other genres in films like The Long Shot and Monster, she has quietly headlined an impressive string of badass action thrillers like Mad Mad Fury Road and Atomic Blonde. Now she brings those chops to the small screen with The Old Guard, (yet another big-screen victim of COVID-19) a film that not only delivers high-energy thrills but also a more introspective addition to the genre.
The film, adapted by Greg Rucka from his 2017 graphic novel of the same name, revolves around a band of mercenaries hired by Former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to save school children in South Sudan. There’s a reason these mercenaries do not wear body armor, they happen to be immortals. They do not age and no matter how serious their injuries whether it is a bullet wound, a slit throat, or a crushing fall from several stories high to the pavement, they quickly heal and are soon ready to fight again. Lead by Andromache of Scythia, a.k.a. Andy (Theron) the team consists of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), and Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli as Joe and Nicky who are multigenerational same-sex lovers (an aspect that is covered a quite movingly graceful way). The squad begins having shared dreams about a U.S. Marine, Nile Freeman who they had never met before (played by Kiki Layne, last seen in the If Beale Street Could Talk). Andy tracks her down to bring her on as a new member of the team, even if she is less than willing to accept her new existence. Little do they know they are being tracked down by a somewhat-stereotypical entrepreneur villain, Steven Merrick, (Harry Melling – a familiar face for Harry Potter fans) who is set on harnessing the power of the immortals’ blood to create a body healing pharmaceutical… and to take over the world. (Maniacal laugh).
Director, Gina Prince-Bythewood takes a big departure from her previous films (Love and Basketball, The Secret Lives of Bees) providing depth and nuance to what could have been a typical action-adventure film. Explosive and violent fight scenes raise the pulse of the film which combines gunplay, hand to hand combat, and swordplay. In these adrenaline-pumping scenes, Theron is a tornado of mayhem – flipping over adversaries, breaking arms, and smashing faces all while confidently delivering weighty dialogue. Pauses between the well-choreographed fights are plentiful and closer explore the team of renegades, their relationship, and how they assembled. The long patches of dialogue slow that pulse and can feel meandering at times, but it is also where the most humanistic elements are found.
Existential questions are explored and slowly unraveled, divulging the secrets of life as an immortal. We begin to understand the melancholic tone among the team as it becomes clearer that living forever is not what it is cracked up to be. Sure you heal from any injury and stay the same age forever, but you also have to outlive your mortal loved ones remaining behind alone to deal with the pain their loss. They also must cope with moral struggles such as mustering the will to fight to save a world, which after witnessing centuries of its cruelness, they are not quite sure it is any longer worth saving. These unexpected side effects of immortality, explain why the heroes kind of mope their way through existence. Those accustomed to orthodox “superhero” films may long for some levity among the heaping amounts of pathos displayed. Unlike a Marvel film (or even DC) these are few and very far between. The film takes a serious approach to the comic book film one steeped in real-world angst.
It becomes obvious that the goal for Prince-Bythewood is beyond just entertaining, she has been tasked with worldbuilding a new action franchise. And, for the most part, she succeeds. This goal explains why so much time is spent establishing backstory including several (somewhat corny) flashbacks which are initially a bit jarring as they seem to come out of nowhere. These do provide emotional context, which eventually pays off, even if the production value makes it tougher to buy that these immortals have been around since before the Crusades. (Keep your eye out for some less than stellar photoshop work that also adds to that challenge). Pacing issues and a reliance on some action film conventions lead to a predictable third act that loses steam, winding down as things should ramp up. Luckily, Kiki Layne is there to kick things up a notch, injecting some much-needed energy saving it from collapse. Even with a weaker third act and shifting tones, The Old Guard provides more resonance than you find in typical action thrillers. There is definitely a lot to chew on here than expected and is worth watching for fans of the genre.
The Old Guard is now playing exclusively on Netflix.
An inventive script and two strong female leads carry this action thriller that could have easily been another forgettable genre piece.