You had me at Charlize and Chiwetel. When you put two of my favorite actors in the same project, you have my attention. So, I was looking forward to seeing “The Old Guard,” an action-adventure that debuted on Netflix this weekend. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.
Charlize Theron plays Andy (a/k/a Andromache of Scythia), the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries who have killed the bad and saved the good for many centuries. Andy’s fellow mercenaries — Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) — have all been injured and killed multiple times, but each time their wounds healed and they returned to the living, ready to take on the next challenge. Yet after taking so many lives for so long, Andy’s become weary of the job because no matter how many times she fights for right, there’s always more wrong to take on, and there’s very little reward in knowing your battles will never end.
It’s the quartet’s immortality that attracts the notice of Merrick (Harry Melling), the arrogant young head of a Big Pharma company, who wants them captured so his scientists can dissect and study them to see how they have kept going, then figure out a way to profit from it. To achieve that, he makes a deal with Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a CIA agent who has called upon The Old Guard’s services several times in the past.
Meanwhile, the four immortals discover there’s a fifth, a young US Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne, so good in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” — my review is here), who was brutally killed on a mission in Afghanistan but, to the shock of her squad-mates, was quickly up and walking around with no scars. Andy goes to retrieve Nile, who doesn’t understand what’s happening to her and fights back (unsuccessfully) against the attempt to induct her into this secret corps of murderers-for-a-good-cause. This allows for some exposition in which we learn a bit of the backstory of Andy and her fellow warriors. They not only regale Nile with some of their history but also reveal the biggest downside of immortality — staying the same age while everyone you love grows old and dies, making for a lonely eternity in which only the other immortals can remain constants in your life.
“The Old Guard” not only has two female stars, but was helmed by a woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood (in the first action-adventure she’s directed), who handles both the quiet and explosive moments with aplomb. “The Old Guard” has the look of a high-sheen comic book, which makes sense when you learn it’s based on a graphic novel series by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay. The fight scenes all look realistic, full of practical effects and stunts instead of lots of CGI. Theron got quite good at doing those sequences when she made 2017’s “Atomic Blonde” (my review is here), and is more than up to the task here, while also making the viewer feel Andy’s centuries-old pain.
As in most of her movies, it’s impossible to take your eye off Theron when she’s onscreen, but the supporting cast is just as good, whether they’re matching her physical intensity in the fight scenes or revealing the pathos and pain of their characters. The only flaw was the way Melling overdid the smarmy aspects of his villain.
“The Old Guard” would have looked great on a big screen, but I found it just as entertaining as it streamed into my living room. I give it a 9 out of 10.