Some actors excel at playing ordinary; Charlize Theron has never really been one of them. Even in rare (and excellent) outliers like Tully or Young Adult, there’s always the sense that she’s biding her time, waiting for the moment her character can break free from some sad basement suburbia and get back to the business of slaying or saving the day.
In other words, squaring up for exactly the kind of role she takes on in The Old Guard, a movie that finds Theron once again playing a life form vastly superior to humans. As Andromach the Scythian — you can call her Andy — she’s the leader of a band of immortal warriors that includes Matthias Schoenaerts and If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne.
And she’s great at it, unsurprisingly, even if her lonely enforcer is rarely as fierce as Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa nor as fun as Atomic Blonde’s platinum assassin (though her hair, chopped into a glossy chocolate pageboy, does at least bring back memories of Aeon Flux’s iconic bob.)
Maybe that’s because poor Andy has spent a thousand-plus years fighting for justice and freedom, and now her worst foe is a peevish pharma bro (Harry Potter’s Harry Melling) intent on forcibly extracting the warriors’ deathless DNA for his own nefarious ends. Or maybe it’s that she, and we, have seen so much of this before.
Some fans literally have, at least on the page: Greg Rucka’s script is based on his own cult graphic-novel series of the same name, and he handles the basic mythology breezily enough in a few brief expository flashbacks that show how the crew came to be over millennia (a Crusades battle here, a little Napoleonic warfare there).
Layne’s Nile is the new kid, a nervy young Marine who wakes up in an Afghan field hospital to find a fatal injury mysteriously healed; one moment it’s a gaping flesh wound, the next it’s disappearing like a time-lapsed kitten scratch. That makes her a convenient proxy for the audience, though the story doesn’t leave a lot of room to mourn the life she’s forced to leave behind.
Or to bring much nuance to the much-heralded queer romance between Old Guards Joe and Nicky (Marwan Kanzari and Luca Marinelli); mostly it just marks the spot — a happy flag planted for LGBTQ representation — and moves on. Chiwetel Ejiofor is also largely wasted as the government agent who’s been tracking them all for years.
Which seems like even more of a shame considering the kind of intimate storytelling director Gina Prince-Bythewood hails from; her sensitive handling of romantic dramas like Beyond the Lights and Love & Basketball would seem to serve those areas of the film far better than it does its bloody but mostly quotidian fight scenes.
That leaves a movie that, beneath its strong female presence and few contemporary bits of flair, has a sort of inevitable bog-standard action feel, just entertaining enough in its live-die-repeat machinations to pass the minimal engagement test. But as the plot lurches toward its climactic showdown, it’s hard not to wish for more of nearly everything but bullets: more banter, more backstory, more scale and visual wit. And more, too, of the fellow warrior (Van Veronica Ngo) who may have been Andy’s only equal before cruel fate (or just a mean screenplay) stole her away.
If The Old Guard doesn’t bring many new tricks, it does have what seems like a pretty sweet deal with Netflix; the final scene slyly opens the door to a sequel, and an opportunity mere mortals are rarely granted in the real world: the chance to rip it all up and start again. B–
The Old Guard begins streaming on Netflix July 10.