'The Old Guard': Film Review

THE OLD GUARD - Charlize Theron - Kiki Layne -NETFLIX Publicity -H 2020
An astutely balanced blend of involving drama and visceral action.

Charlize Theron leads a team of immortal mercenaries whose power is exposed to vulnerability in Gina Prince-Bythewood's action thriller for Netflix based on the graphic novel series.

A persuasive argument, not that one should still be required, for handing women directors the reins more often on big-canvas action movies, The Old Guard represents a boldly assured step for Gina Prince-Bythewood away from the intimate romantic drama of strong previous work like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. That said, what makes this gripping graphic novel adaptation so distinctive is the trust it places in its audience to stay glued through the quiet, character-building interludes threaded among excitingly varied fight scenes that crescendo in an expertly choreographed showdown.

Led with take-charge authority by Charlize Theron, flanked by a breakout turn from KiKi Layne, this is unusually soulful superhero material firmly rooted in real-world situations. Actually, calling the Netflix feature a superhero film seems reductive given the melancholy ambivalence shown by its protagonists toward their powers. But it's definitely superhero-adjacent, and a welcome surprise for those of us craving more emotional layering and dramatic grit and less routine comic-strip wham-kapow.

This is a mainstream movie that benefits enormously from its intelligence and inclusivity: The Old Guard showcases commanding work from a woman of color in the director's chair; a muscular co-lead role for a Black actress with intriguing elements put in place for her prominence in future installments (I'm so there); and most unexpectedly, a jolt of queer-positive representation via gay characters whose love is reaffirmed with stirring defiance in the face of macho scorn.

Adapting his series of graphic novels (illustrated by Leandro Fernandez), screenwriter Greg Rucka also adds texture through his sensitive observation of the lingering trauma of war, the weight of violence and the loss of family while grounding the story's villainy in a portrait of 21st century capitalism that blurs the lines between greed and sadism. Making the heroes' chief antagonist a maniacal misfit nerd who heads a Big Pharma corporation — played by Harry Melling, the Harry Potter franchise's Dudley Dursley, all grown up — only adds to the heightened stakes of superpowers battling against the rampant ills of our contemporary world.

Theron plays Andromache of Scythia, who helpfully goes by Andy, head of a tight band of warriors unable to be killed, regenerating every time they die. Her fellow soldiers Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) met and fell in love while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades, and logistics guy Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) was first slaughtered in the Napoleonic Wars. Andy's weapon of choice is a double-headed medieval ax — or a modern take on one — but she dates back even further, judging by the ancient Greek placement of her name.

The group has no catchy tag, like the Avengers, nor is their moral code initially clear. Asked if they're good guys or bad, one of them replies, "Depends on the century." Basically, they are deadly mercenaries, soldiers for hire brought in to sort out dire situations. But Andy is disillusioned by humanity's failure to redeem itself even after centuries of their interventions. "The world can burn for all I care," she says. "I'm done." She's like a weary vampire for whom eternal life is more of a curse than a blessing.

Andy reluctantly gets on board when they are recruited by former CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan, echoing the 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria. But that mission turns out to be a set-up, revealing that an enemy knows of their carefully concealed existence.

At the same time, they share visions of an "awakening," the emergence for the first time in centuries of a new immortal, when U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (Layne) gets her throat slashed in Afghanistan and swiftly recovers. The visions are mutual; Nile's nightmare flashes of Andy's past illuminate a backstory that includes the death of the latter's original comrade — the first indication that their immortality is not absolute — and the cruel fate met by her beloved companion Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo, seen recently as Hanoi Hannah in Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods).

Prince-Bythewood puts refreshing time and care into establishing the characters in an opening stretch that includes enough gun, fist, sword and mixed martial arts action to whet the appetite for the more extended clashes to come. This is especially true of the spiky interplay between Andy and Nile, as the eternal warrior whisks her newborn sister away from military scrutiny. Freaked out by what's happening to her, Nile resists, notably in a pounding mano a mano fight with Andy in the cargo hold of an airborne plane.

Nile barely has time to accept her kinship before the group is ambushed at a safe house outside Paris and two members taken by a paramilitary squad working for Merrick (Melling), CEO of the pharmaceutical company that bears his name. Having made a fortune on cancer treatments, he is determined to find a drug to reverse cognitive decline, but his motives are not altruistic. His research lab evokes shades of Nazi human experimentation as the scientist on his payroll (Anamaria Marinca) draws blood and tissue samples from the abductees in order to replicate their DNA.

Merrick wants the rest of the group captured to keep them out of his competitors' hands. But Andy, forever guilt-stricken over her failure to protect Quynh, vows to get her comrades back. Rucka's script deftly introduces physical setbacks, internal betrayals, uncertainties about Nile's commitment and a shift in one character's loyalties as the rescuers gear up to take on Merrick's heavily armed crew in an impressively sustained final act full of balletic fight moves.

Theron has accrued bona fide action credentials in films like Atomic Blonde and most memorably in Mad Max: Fury Road; here she plays another kind of Furiosa, burdened by memories of countless tragedies stretching back across history. Dressed in basic black, with dark hair in a no-fuss, side-parted bob, she looks toned and powerful, moving with a loose swagger. But it's the brooding interiority of the character, the psychological baggage she's carrying, that gives her dimension. One of her best scenes is a tender exchange with a French pharmacist dressing her wounds, in which the stranger's kindness cuts through Andy's jaded disgust with humanity's failings.

Layne, so luminous in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, toughens up convincingly, pushing back against the unasked-for mentorship of Andy with palpable anger while slowly coming to terms with the sorrow of losing her family and being conscripted into a life in the shadows. In a strong scene between Nile and Booker, we observe her mind ticking over the road ahead as he opens up about the pain of watching people he loves grow old and die while he never ages. Schoenaerts, a naturally physical actor with an introspective side, brings quiet depths to this role.

All the characters are well-drawn, with Kenzari and Marinelli giving an affecting display of a love that has only grown stronger over the millennia. Unlike, say, the polite acknowledgment of Sulu's sexuality in Star Trek Beyond, or the ambiguity in screen portrayals of queer characters from the comics in MCU movies, Prince-Bythewood and her actors treat the union of Joe and Nicky with unabashed candor.

Melling puts a suitably nasty spin on corporate villainy, playing Merrick with a rodent-like intensity and twisted sense of power in inverse proportion to his physical presence; and Ejiofor reveals gnawing conflicts in Copley, setting up an ongoing role if this film should generate a sequel. Pay attention to a brief coda six months after the main action for an explicit indication of how another character is likely to figure in an eventual follow-up.

There's a pleasing sweep to the storytelling, which jumps across settings in Africa, Southern Asia, rural France and London. Prince-Blythewood has used TV experience on Cloak & Dagger and Shots Fired as a stepping stone to a more action-driven movie than her previous work. She has assets in the dynamic camerawork of Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd (the latter having shown his dexterity with the high-tension visuals of his collaborations with Paul Greengrass), and the punchy cutting of regular editor Terilyn A. Shropshire.

As always with Prince-Blythewood, the use of music provides sharp enhancement, with a subtle score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran that incorporates driving techno and percussion elements. There's also an eclectic mix of vocals, encompassing ambient, electropop, rap, hip-hop and R&B, primarily in soft, slow cuts that combine to give the movie a spiritual, trance-like feel that deepens its thematic emphasis on the psychological toll of violence.

The Old Guard feels like just the new crew we need.

Production companies: Skydance, Denver & Delilah Films, Marc Evans Production
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anamaria Marinca, Joey Ansah
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenwriter: Greg Rucka, based on the graphic novel series by Rucka, illustrated by Leandro Fernández
Producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Charlize Theron, A.J. Dix, Beth Kono, Marc Evans
Executive producers: Stan Wlodkowski, Greg Rucka
Directors of photography: Tami Reiker, Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Paul Kirby
Costume designer: Mary Vogt
Music: Volker Bertelmann, Dustin O'Halloran
Editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Sound designers: Glenn Freemantle, Ben Barker
Visual effects supervisor: Sara Bennett
Casting: Lucy Bevan, Aisha Coley

Rated R, 118 minutes