Former atomic blonde Charlize Theron goes nuclear brunette to play Andromache the Scythian (call her Andy for short), a centuries-old warrior who’s getting weary of fighting the good fight into the violent present. As per screenwriter Greg Rucka’s graphic novel, Andy leads a tight group of dedicated immortal mercenaries that include Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member since 1817, and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), a gay couple who’ve been head over heels in love since the Crusades. Though the quartet can recover from wounds in minutes, pain is a constant. Meanwhile, U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne) freaks out when she dies in combat … and immediately rises up to kill the dude who just cut her throat. Nile has no idea why she’s still among the living. Andy, however, recognizes a fellow quick-healing fighter when she sees one. And she’s quick to recruit the young soldier for the team.
That’s a lot of exposition to lay on upfront. But The Old Guard is that kind of action movie — it wants to spawn a franchise so badly you can smell the desperation. There’s no telling yet whether the movie has the juice for sequels, but for now at least this equivalent of a summer blockbuster fills the pandemic bill for escapism with a little something extra. (It begins streaming on Netflix starting July 10th.)
Chief among the movie’s assets is director Gina Prince-Bythewood, best known for Love and Basketball, the 2000 hit based on her own adolescent hoop dreams and one of the most successful films ever directed by a black woman. She also showed her skill with intimate drama in The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a singer fighting the sexualization that comes with pop stardom. Still, nothing in those films prepares you for the ferocity she brings to The Old Guard. And if you’re thinking Prince-Bythewood sacrifices her gift for characterization to do it, think again. For all the sound and fury on screen, it’s the personal interactions that keep you emotionally in the game.
Theron has already showed her talent for bringing a deeper dimension to action as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Here, the actor reveals the toll that living forever is taking on Andy, who took a year off to heal emotional scars before her reluctant return to battle. It’s Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former CIA agent, who alerts Andy to the 17 schoolchildren who’ve been abducted in South Sudan. However, the rescue mission is actually a trap set up by Merrick, a Big Pharma CEO hammed up to the hilt by Harry Melling, the famously spoiled Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies. He has obtained camera footage of the Old Guard defying death. Now the corporate 1-percenter is determined to carve up the team for blood, bone and tissue so he can sell their DNA for quick profits.
Even when the fighting scenes grow repetitive — how many times can you watch Andy throwing her axe? — the characters themselves grow in force. Andy and Nile start out with an admittedly dynamite battle royale in the hold of a cargo plane; soon the veteran warrior is mothering her new charge. It’s satisfying on many levels to watch Layne, a young African-American newcomer, gives as good as she gets, and the actor, so luminous in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, rises beautifully to the challenge. You can feel Nile’s agony over leaving her family behind. It’s a sorrow she shares with Booker, a complex outlier who the excellent Schoenaerts plays with the banked resentment of someone used to watching those he’s loved grow old and die.
Such depth of field is rare in an epic of weapons and warfare. Thank Prince-Bythewood for also taking the time to develop a queer love story in these frenzied circumstances. Kenzari and Marinelli turn Joe and Nicky into a romance that truly does stand the test of time. “His kiss still thrills me,” says Joe, “even after a millenium.” Even Andy is haunted by a lost love, Quynh (Veronica Ngo of Da 5 Bloods), seen in Nile’s nightmares locked in a cage underwater, and a growing premonition that her immortality is not forever.
It’s possible that fans of all-adrenaline, all-the-time action movies will be turned off by the way Prince-Bythewood suffuses her film with melancholy, reflected in the cinematography of Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd, and musical references that move from explosive percussion to the introspective beauty of Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed.” The grace notes dissipate in a climax that’s more about sequel building than character construction. But until then The Old Guard finds unexpected power in the quiet at the heart of the storm.