Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne kick off a more thoughtful kind of action franchise with The Old Guard

Illustration for article titled Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne kick off a more thoughtful kind of action franchise with iThe Old Guard/i
Photo: Aimee Spinks/Netflix

“So are you good guys or bad guys?”

“Depends on the century—we fight for what’s right.”

With The Old Guard, Love & Basketball and Beyond The Lights director Gina Prince-Bythewood helms an action-fantasy hybrid that takes the beauty marks—and warts—of each genre and creates a sequel-starter for Netflix. The film follows an idealistic cadre of heroes who all share a common thread: They can live for centuries. The titular group is led by Andy (Charlize Theron), with Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) making up the rest of the crew. When a new immortal warrior, Nile (Kiki Layne), joins them, she sparks a reckoning with the Guard’s ideals—and the rosy picture they try to uphold.

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Early in the film, Andy gifts Booker with a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which makes sense: A novel whose central ethic is individual goodness amid an errant society fits right in among this league of extraordinary Samaritans. The Guard has been around for ages, fighting (and dying) for humankind. At some point, they each found others like them, and banded together to secretly rescue humanity from itself ad nauseam. From stopping nuclear bombs to rescuing child hostages, Andy and company are guardians of the same mortals who would detest them if their powers were found out. The rub is that there’s a cap on their so-called immortality—one day, wounds just stop healing. It’s at this point that this superhero movie becomes a changing-of-the-guard Western, ruminating on what we leave to the next generation and what ideals it prioritizes.

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Greg Rucka pens the screenplay, refashioning his own graphic novel and doing as much to retain tone and character agency as Gillian Flynn did for her Gone Girl adaptation, for example. So many action-fantasy films rely on flashy visuals and a basic “good vs. evil” plot to move the story along, but Prince-Bythewood takes a cue from Rucka’s source material. She’s unafraid to sit and breathe with the players on the stage. Peaks and valleys in the film’s momentum enable a focus on character. In one such valley, Nile feels eyes on her as a result of her miraculous recovery from having her throat slashed. Feeling the pressure of judgment, the Marine isolates herself (as much as one can in a combat zone) and turns on her iPod, letting Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed” take her away. In another, a captured immortal goes on a high-intensity monologue about their lover, a storytelling luxury not often afforded to masculine characters.

Such access to the characters’ inner world makes them infinitely more tangible, showing a sense of care on Prince-Bythewood’s part. Layne and Theron both get roles that deserve their caliber: Theron’s stiff upper-lip turns in Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, as well as Layne’s soulful performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, find extensions in the shoes they fill here. On the opposite end, mega-baddie Merrick (Harry Melling) puts Lex Luthor’s ego into a Silicon Valley douchebag body, abducting the Guard and tapping into their bloodstreams for DNA—ostensibly to be harvested for the common good. Meanwhile, Chiwetel Ejiofor continues to provide subtle surprises as naïve enabler Copley, whose cooperation with the villain is a tell-tale heart that haunts him more with every beat. The focus on compelling character arcs makes for an indulgent runtime that threatens to slow down the pacing too much, but The Old Guard blossoms in its third act thanks to the emotional investment.

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Prince-Bythewood’s athletic background (she considers Love & Basketball a memoir of sorts) serves the film well—the fight scenes are choreographed methodically and practically, without stiletto heels and tight spandex. In fact, the movements are so intricate and deliberate that a simple second of imbalance speaks volumes, a testimonial to both Prince-Bythewood’s confidence as a director and the skill of fight coordinator Danny Hernandez. With spent shells firing and roundhouse kicks landing, the action sequences are a solid mix of sustained shots of the actors and sharp cuts, establishing a vicious rhythm that doesn’t lose steam in its more combative moments.

In a past life, this would be a standard B-movie shoot-’em-up. But, as Prince-Bythewood presents it, The Old Guard is an effective and tender bundle of contradictions, a franchise launchpad about (among other things) endings. Near the climax, Andy sighs with the weight of a thousand unnecessary deaths, “We don’t get a say in when it ends. We never have. But we can control how we live.” Hope may be a tall order in the current Boschian mayhem we’re living in, but it’s not so impractical to keep your head down and try to do the right thing through it all. The immortals, too, hope for the best while preparing for the worst. If that’s quixotic, then point the way toward the nearest windmill.

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