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Charlize Theron has spent decades proving herself as a remarkable talent and hyper-versatile performer, but she has demonstrated in the last few years a special acuity for action. Making everyone in the world completely forget about the existence of Aeon Flux, she created a genre icon with her turn as Furiosa in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and a few years later followed that up with a whole lot of ass-kicking as the lead in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde. If the material is strong enough, Theron can apply her excellent skills and help create a legitimately badass adventure. The latest film to prove this is Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard.
Not only does the movie transform Charlize Theron into a hyper-lethal warrior armed with an ornate staff and an unyielding drive to do good, it activates the character in a world built with a strong mythology, and it pairs her with an equally-engaging crew that share a single fascinating trait: they are all immortal (or at least they are until they are mysteriously not). The narrative that plays out is mostly generic, playing out familiar twists and turns, but there are more than enough strengths to serve as counterweights and keep the audience thrilled throughout.
Scripted by Greg Rucka, the writer of the comic from which The Old Guard is adapted, the film begins introducing us to Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) – a group that has come together over the course of hundreds of years, as the revelation of a new immortal on Earth is something that all of them can collectively sense in their dreams. Led by Andy a.k.a. Andromache of Scythia, who is the oldest of all of them, they are driven to use their persistent lives on Earth to make a meaningful positive impact, and this involves taking on what are essentially mercenary missions that no other unit could survive.
They agree to take on a job given to them by a new client, an ex-CIA agent named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but it’s at this time that they are hit with a double whammy. It turns out that the contract was a setup just to see the immortals in action – Copley serving the interests of Merrick (Harry Melling), a powerful pharmaceutical executive interested in experimenting on the team – and shortly after their getaway they all get hit with visions of a new addition to their ranks: a marine operating in Afghanistan named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne).
The Old Guard does a nice job engaging with the idea of being immortal, while building a strong mythology.
As is typical with these kinds of stories, The Old Guard utilizes the initiation of Nile (essentially the audience surrogate) as a vehicle to realistically deliver exposition, but it never feels bogged down or tired because the story it has to tell is richly detailed, well-constructed, and compelling. The concept of immortality is a fascinating one that the film explores thoughtfully from a wide variety of angles, and perceptions on it have a fantastic way of morphing the characters motivations, moralities, and convictions (heroes and villains alike). Everyone has their own place in the story, and it’s exciting to see the movie thinking on so many levels.
The drawback is that all of those ideas have to be packaged in what essentially operates as an origin story – which is to say it plays out a narrative that is less about being clever and complex by itself, and instead is present more as a tool for the film to say what it wants to say about its complicated protagonists and their place in the world. It has a hampering effect when reflecting on The Old Guard as a whole, but it’s more than serviceable, and it takes the appropriate steps to set up a sequel with great potential.
Anchored by action veteran Charlize Theron, the fight scenes pop and get creative.
One of the most exciting ways in which the film engages with the idea of immortality is through action and combat, and every set piece is exciting, cool, and well-shot. For a filmmaker who has never directed an action movie before, Gina Prince-Bythewood instincts prove excellent, as fights are not only stylish and clearly cut, coordinate well with the characters engaging. Pain may be a serious concern, but fatal blows are not, and it’s thrilling to see how that’s incorporated – especially in the more chaotic scenes.
Naturally, Charlize Theron is the regular scene-stealer, as you watch her mow down an entire room of armed soldiers all by her lonesome and buy every second of it. She’s operating at Keanu Reeves’ level now. Her co-stars, however, also prove to be quite dynamic in battle – particularly action movie first-timer KiKi Layne, who leans into her character’s military background to be a formidable ass-kicker in her own right. This is a genre she hopefully she continues to explore as her promising young career continues forward.
The Old Guard features an interesting collection of characters you ultimately want to see more of.
It often feels like a compulsion of films like these to foster a sense of individuality among the characters by giving each of the characters some kind of specialty or unique, standout trait, but one of The Old Guard’s strengths is that it doesn’t lean on that trope – instead letting personalities, histories, and relationships define them. This means that the movie leans more on the performances, but proves to be no issue. In this cast there are no weak links, and each of them are established in a way that makes you want to see their stories continue by the time the credits roll.
As a distributor, Netflix is having some nice success with the action genre in 2020, having this film follow Sam Hargrave’s Extraction release back in March. The Old Guard is another title that will keep you strapped to your sofa and holding your breath. Click play, and enjoy the ride.