In ‘The Old Guard’, she kicks ass with her immortal crew
“I used to be worshipped as a god,” says Charlize Theron’s character, Andy, in Netflix’s The Old Guard. The action-movie-going population definitely worships Theron herself, primarily for her Furiosa of Mad Max: Fury Road and laconic Cold War spy in Atomic Blonde. She’s our most nuanced ass-kicker, dispatching deadly violence with a deep sigh of exhaustion, as if deflated that she’s still entertaining audiences by mowing down scores of nameless men on camera. I still think back to the first time I saw her in 1996’s godawful 2 Days in the Valley, playing a hapless blonde with minimal lines and clothing, and thinking even then, dude, you’re obviously too good for this.
THE OLD GUARD ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Written by: Greg Rucka
Starring: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias, Schoenaerts
Running time: 125 min
Here, she’s Andromache of Sythia, an immortal warrior who’s been fighting various Big Bads throughout the ages alongside four male, similarly unkillable cohorts, who Greg Rucka first drew in a comic of the same name.
The villain du jour is a British pharma-bro named Merrick, a cinematic mashup of Martin Shkreli and Mark Zuckerberg. He’s a hoodie-wearing twerp who Harry Melling plays to perfection. If Melling looks familiar, it’s because he was Harry Potter’s obnoxious cousin Dudley Dursley. Merrick is–wait for it–obsessed with finding the secret to eternal life. If he can bring in Andy and her crew, with the aid of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s former CIA operative Copley, he can harness their DNA.
Meanwhile, the foursome has also discovered the emergence of a new immortal, a female Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne), who’s getting a lot of side-eye from her Afghanistan-based colleagues after surviving a gaping neck wound during a botched raid.
Does it all feel pretty familiar, as ultra-violent comics adaptations go? Sure. But under the direction of Gina Price-Bythewood (Love and Basketball), The Old Guard spends as much time developing the relationships between its principals as it does on the bloodshed. And it’s a real credit to Rucka’s screenplay that the two characters you come away wanting to know more about are supporting players: Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), two of Andy’s guard who’ve become a couple over the millennia. They met during the Crusades and have killed each other many times. Ah, romance. A scene in which a dumbass soldier cracks, “What is he, your boyfriend?” to one of them elicits my favorite speech in the film, an ode to love and devotion that leaves a truckful of hired guns looking anywhere but at their two captives.
Of course Theron holds her own. Various flashbacks give us a little insight into her past, including a long stint of mobs executing her as a witch, over and over again. No wonder she looks so fucking tired. Matthias Schoenaerts, as the other member of the team, is a Napoleon-era soldier named Booker who’s been her right-hand man ever since, and it’s nice to see him in popcorny fare like this; usually you’ll find him in somber indies or period pieces. Rucka provides him a good speech about the bummer of immortality, about losing your family and anyone you ever love. It’s like a vampire movie with less camp.
If you’re here for the action, though, there’s plenty of it. Theron is so good at martial arts now that her fight scenes are a thing of beauty – I briefly harbored a fantasy of her being the next John Wick baddie, and people keep whispering about an Atomic Blonde crossover. But Nile has a problem with all the killing: “I saw what you did… all those bodies,” she points out after one giant set piece involving SWAT teams and assault rifles and explosions and lots of head shots. I began to hope there would be a larger arc moving away from gratuitous gun violence, but not so much. The young Nile has lessons to learn, including the fact that an endless supply of nameless characters will always line up for her to take them out with splashy fake-blood squibs.
On one hand, I get it: What’s a comic-book action movie if not a chance to revel in some harmless offing of people who want to do bad stuff? But for a movie so concerned with the idea of mortality–and lack thereof–The Old Guard is strangely cavalier about human life.