‘The Old Guard,” starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne, is a slick sci-fi film with a supernatural twist. It has a great concept, cast and script, and it’s executed crisply by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “Beyond the Lights”). This film makes her the first Black woman to direct a big-budget, star-driven action movie, which already makes it worth the watch, and Prince-Bythewood’s assured direction makes it a worthy one, too.
“The Old Guard” refers to a group of immortals, an “army” of sorts, or at least a sleeper cell of four warriors, led by Andy (Theron), who have been around for centuries. They’re moral mercenaries, fighting for what they believe in. Andy, the oldest of the guard, has led the life of a mysterious, legendary warrior, keeping a low profile in the modern world while saddling up for special missions. When a rescue op turns out to be a setup and a new warrior of their kind (KiKi Layne) pops up in Afghanistan, Andy has to scramble for her team’s survival, even though survival, for them, is the easy part. Captivity for an immortal is the hard part.
Greg Rucka adapts his own graphic novel series for the screen, and he delivers a fantastic script, one that is modern but rich in mythology. Prince-Bythewood gives just enough flashback material to offer a taste of the vastness of the tale, but it never overwhelms the story at hand. This supernatural-ish concept is grounded and deeply human.
Since Theron always seems somewhat superhuman anyway, this is an easy role for her to slip into. She delivers a captivating performance that isn’t showy, but subtle and sensitive. She’s a gifted physical actor, and as Andy, she moves with a confident efficiency. When that confidence and power start to slip in her gait and posture, you take notice.
Andy, jaded after centuries of this life, is grappling with ethical and existential questions when Nile (Layne) shows up, perhaps to show her the possibilities again. Nile, a Marine, embodies the grounded, human questions of it all: Why her? How? What about her family? As Nile progresses from scared to rebellious to accepting, Layne capably conveys the weight of the new reality for her character, and Prince-Bythewood gives those moments time to breathe.
What makes “The Old Guard” fascinating is not necessarily the fight scenes or action sequences (though those are a necessary part of building out this unique world), but the conversations the characters have about what they’ve chosen to do with the immortality they never chose for themselves. Rucka’s script carefully weaves these moments into organic conversation so it never feels like an exposition dump, and Prince-Bythewood is so skilled at balancing the emotional discussions about the morality of immortality with adrenaline-pounding fight scenes. The villain is a bit of an underdeveloped stereotype, but he gets the job done.
All too often, the human aspect gets lost in the spectacle of an action movie. But Rucka and Prince-Bythewood foreground that element of the story to create something with stakes, intrigue and philosophical weight. They make sure this cool concept and cast are given their due and set up a sequel, too. With any luck, we’ll see this world again.
Available Friday on Netflix.
What “The Old Guard” • Three stars out of four • Run time 1:58 • Rating R • Content Sequences of graphic violence and language
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