The Old Guard

 

starstarstarstarhalf

 


As the Eternal Warrior, Charlize Theron kick-starts a new comic-book franchise with a smart, liberal agenda. 

 
Old Guard, The

Fighting for eternity: KiKi Layne and Charlize Theron

 

Charlize Theron is the old guard and she’s very, very old indeed. And as guardian of humanity’s future, she brings a whole new perspective to what it means to be noble and self-sacrificing. Whilst based on Greg Rucka's comic book of the same name, The Old Guard starts conventionally enough, in the backstreets of Marrakesh. Here, sporting shades, black jeans and T-shirt, Ms Theron is the embodiment of cool. At just shy of 5’10”, she cuts an imposing figure among the locals, striding purposefully alongside Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s just shy of 6’2”. She’s been called to Morocco for a mission and the pair display an easy camaraderie, with Charlize – as Andy – handing Schoenaerts – as Booker – a first edition of Don Quixote. “That couldn’t have been cheap,” he notes. “It wasn’t,” she responds. He doesn’t seem that grateful, but the scene reveals a shorthand that is to become apparent as the film shifts into second gear. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to rescue 17 schoolgirls, aged eight to thirteen, who have been kidnapped by the militia. It’s a favour for an old colleague from the CIA, James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, no less), but Andy is reluctant. “We don’t do repeats,” she says, “you know that. It’s too risky” Of course, she’s right, and before long she’s taken a bullet in the face. It isn’t a spoiler – we see her gunned down before the opening title.

 

It’s no secret that The Old Guard is a superhero movie, but it’s a superhero movie with a difference. Andy and her eternal cohorts, Booker, Joe and Nicky, are genuinely heroic figures, but they can’t fly, shoot silk or levitate, let alone display the skill set of the X-Men. They can’t die, either, and their immortality is both a blessing and a curse. Unlike many high-concept actioners, the film starts well enough – it is beautifully shot by Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd and scored by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran – but just gets better as the characters’ back stories interlock and new complications emerge. It transpires that there is a limit to anyone’s immortality and one of their number, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), met a particularly nasty end over 500 years ago (she was incarcerated in an iron coffin and drowned). At times, The Old Guard is brutal, but it’s also funny, self-knowing, timely, gripping and moving – and the visceral scenes of combat are second to none. Theron, who has turned in her fair share of action heroines, can kick some serious butt and takes delight in breaking bones, firing firearms and even wielding genuinely Medieval weaponry. Forsooth, she brings a whole new aspect to the term “getting Medieval.”

 

Along with its oleaginous villain (corporate glutton Harry Melling), deliberations on immortality (Booker: “You’ll lose everyone you’ve ever loved”) and pictorial locales (Morocco, South Sudan, Afghanistan, France and central London), the film makes a number of smart choices. Following the critically lionised Roma, The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Two Popes and Da 5 Bloods, Netflix continues to maintain a very high standard, with even minor ventures like Tamara Jenkins' Private Life and Alice Wu's The Half of It punching way above their weight. The Old Guard, produced by Ms Theron and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is unusual in that it is a big-budget genre thriller whose two leads are both female – KiKi Layne, as a US Marine, is a more than capable match for Theron. Furthermore, Layne, who played Tish in If Beale Street Could Talk, is both female and black. As the major Hollywood studios are still daubing the egg off their faces from the proliferation of their white, male-dominated product, Netflix is remodelling the landscape. And the streaming giant is doing it with style. Mounted as the first instalment of a franchise – to be heartily welcomed – this rush of escapism balances action, narrative and tone with acuity. Somehow, it manages to be both exciting and profound, playing it absolutely straight while maintaining a sardonic wink. It’s a hard act to pull off, but Gina Prince-Bythewood nails it. This is X-Men for grown-ups with a strong feminine thrust. Most satisfying of all, though, is that it’s a superhero movie in which the superpowers are provided by the actors and not the CGI.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anamaria Marinca, Joey Ansah, Natacha Karam, Micheal Ward, Simon Chandler.

 

Dir Gina Prince-Bythewood, Pro David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Charlize Theron, AJ Dix, Beth Kono and Marc Evans, Screenplay Greg Rucka, Ph Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd, Pro Des Paul Kirby, Ed Terilyn A. Shropshire, Music Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran, Costumes Mary E. Vogt, Sound Glenn Freemantle, Dialect coach Sarah Shepherd.

 

Skydance Media/Denver and Delilah Productions/Marc Evans Productions-Netflix.

125 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 10 July 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.