Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts
It’s official: Charlize Theron has cornered the market on female badasses. Learning her lessons from the unnecessarily arcane debacle that was 2005’s Æon Flux, Theron has gone from strength to strength—as the dreadlocked villain of Fast & Furious 8, the icy assassin of Atomic Blonde, and most sublimely as the real protagonist in Mad Max: Fury Road. She manages to keep the trope of the female warrior fresh by giving her heroines unexpected heft and gravitas, making her leggy fight routines land with extra crunch.
The complexity Theron lends her characters is much needed in The Old Guard, where she plays Andromeda the Scythian—or Andy, for these snappy, androgynous-friendly times—an ancient warrior who has literally seen it all: She is the leader of a small army of immortal fighters who has gone from age to age lending her lethal expertise in world-transforming conflicts, all while keeping her pack’s identities a secret. Among her band of not-so-merry men are the hangdog Booker (Red Sparrow’s Matthias Schoenaerts) and, most interestingly, a pair of homosexual lovers (Luca Marinelli and Aladdin’s Marwan Kenzari) who found each other fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades. Talk about a longtime companionship.
Because of a traumatic execution during the Inquisition involving another immortal named Quynh (played by Van Veronica Ngo, the character’s name is actually pronounced “queen”—just another example of comic-book nerd arcana), Andy and her soldiers have learned that secrecy is paramount. So it’s highly inconvenient, to say the least, to have an ex-CIA operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) blow their cover just as they discover the existence of another self-healing immortal, a Marine named Nile (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Kiki Layne), who has just had her first death and rebirth while fighting in Afghanistan.
As poetically violent as John Wick without the winking humor, The Old Guard manages to avoid being gloomy by situating its beating heart in the relationship between grizzled vet Andy and clumsy gelding Nile. Theron’s grounded weariness and Layne’s preternatural watchfulness play off each other in electric ways, and it’s rare to find anything in pop culture that explores the mutual respect in female mentorship. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) also expertly juggles balletic fight choreography with moments of introspective character-building.
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While the script by Greg Rucka (adapting the comic book series created by him and Leandro Fernandez) ultimately follows predictable beats of world building interspersed with gusts of gory violence, The Old Guard mines its rare nuggets of humor not from throwaway one-liners, but from punchlines with elaborate setups. (One memorable sequence has Kenzari’s Joe waxing poetic on his same-sex romance while in captivity, his mercenary captors squirming in their bulletproof vests with every operatic declaration.)
A mid-film twist on the troop’s immortality gives the plot a push, and lends The Old Guard a poignant flavor of impending sorrow. And what was originally a throwaway diversion on Netflix suddenly becomes a contemplation on mortality and what it means to be human. Thanks to Theron’s soulful performance and Prince-Bythewood’s sly direction, The Old Guard transcends its pulpy origins. Given the ending’s possibility for a sequel—is an open ending a requirement written into the contracts of all action IPs?—I wouldn’t mind checking in with these old fogies in a few years’ time.
The Old Guard is currently streaming on Netflix
Photographs from Netflix