Any chance to watch Charlize Theron‘s hack-and-slash approach to “diplomacy” is a chance worth taking. Regardless of who’s in the director’s chair, Theron is a showstopper, a force of nature with the acting chops and the physicality to make blending breathtaking action with great character work seem effortless. Her turn as Mad Max: Fury Road‘s take-no-shit Furiosa comes to mind, but her performances in Æon Flux and Atomic Blonde make impressions of competing longevity (even if the movies themselves can’t touch George Miller’s masterpiece). And now, with director Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s fantastic The Old Guard, Theron gets to kick ass again—without restraint.
Based on the identically-titled comic by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, The Old Guard follows a group of eternal warriors fighting to do good things with their immortality. Hunting them is Steven Merrick, an avaricious CEO hell-bent on profiting off their unique abilities. As the state of the world worsens and the bad guys close in, The Old Guard’s altruistic acts seem increasingly futile, eventually reaching the point where these people contemplate giving up.
Despite her getting top billing here, Theron isn’t the only one who makes Prince-Bythewood’s foray into the action genre one for the books. It’s KiKi Layne and Matthias Schoenaerts who help bring power and potential to this picture; aside from Theron, they get the most to do. Theron’s Andromache of Scythia (“Andy”) is weary and disheartened and has to overcome those feelings to continue helping humanity. Schoenaerts’s Booker is ready to die and makes decisions from that place of despair. And Layne’s Niles…she just wants to know what the fuck is going on.
Compellingly, Booker’s “Are we done yet?” attitude ends up falling out of alignment with Andy’s “What’s the point” stance. And Niles’s “Why me?” is rich, too, mainly because she’s the audience insert. She’s asking the questions any of us would in her situation. Andy, Niles, and Booker are superior characters because they ask the clearest questions. Memorable character arcs ask rather than tell, and The Old Guard is ripe with queries. Joe and Nicky, ably portrayed by Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli, respectively, aren’t nearly as crucial to the film’s world-building, and so don’t receive nearly as much love (even though they absolutely should).
It’s a relentless action flick with a narrative that prioritizes its characters’ plights over originality and benefits greatly from it. Blemished steel in an armory of super-suits and cosmically-powered accoutrements, The Old Guard outlasts other stories of its kind by skimping on glitzy gadgetry and instead grounding itself in a reliable, if played-out, simplicity. The story doesn’t go any deeper than it needs to and it often moves far too briskly, but it has this self-assuredness guiding it away from its triteness and into some really fun, thematically chewy territory. Prince-Bythewood, working from Rucka’s tight, focused script, crafts something that honestly resembles the thoughtful but minimalistic approach of James Mangold‘s stunning Logan.
The Old Guard works because it steers clear of meditation and instead lightly comments on how poorly immortality can go when living has lost its luster. It doesn’t pile its ideas into messy stacks like headier films often do, and it sure as shit doesn’t exhaust itself with exposition. It’s a streamlined story made better by charismatic turns by Theron, Schoenaerts, Layne, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and even Dudley Durs…I mean, Harry Melling.
The Old Guard isn’t out to revolutionize the action genre. It’s out to show Hollywood that a stripped-down premise can be just as effective as a more complex exploration of the same concept. A triumph of action-adventure filmmaking, it’s a reinforcement of “less is more” and proof that ideas without significant depth can still yield meaningful stories.