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Never say die – ‘The Old Guard’

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It takes a special kind of performer to headline an action franchise. Gone are the days when all it took was a willingness to bulk up, shoot guns and spout catchphrases; today’s action offerings trend toward the high-concept, particularly when looking to create or continue a series. And a different sort of action requires a different sort of actor.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have pegged someone like Charlize Theron as a likely action star, but following recent turns in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” it is abundantly clear that she has all the requisite chops to handle her business.

Her latest entry into that realm is “The Old Guard,” currently streaming on Netflix. It’s a sharp and sometimes surprising sci-fi action offering, one clearly intended to kick off a franchise for the streamer. There’s a thoughtfulness to the film that you don’t always see in this sort of offering, along with a willingness to allow breathing room for character development (although the action set pieces are high in both quality and quantity).

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a screenplay that Greg Rucka adapted from his own graphic novel series of the same name, “The Old Guard” is a film whose strengths are consistently complementary, finding the perfect blend of action-packed excitement and character engagement – one left wide open for future installments.

Andy (Theron) is the leader of a small team of elite mercenaries, devoted to traveling the globe and executing missions that – to their minds – serve the greater good. They are the best in the world at what they do, though very few know who they are… and no one knows the whole truth. The reason Andy and her crew – Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts, “The Laundromat”), Joe (Marwan Kenzari, “Aladdin”) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli, “Martin Eden”) – are so consistently effective?

They don’t die. No matter what happens, no matter what sort of physical harm they undergo – they heal. They come back.

Obviously, this is something that they keep secret from the world at large, fearing the repercussions of humanity’s fear (and having suffered the wrath of those who discovered them at times in the past). Their unique abilities are enhanced by skill sets honed over their many years of life, making them exceptional combatants … among other things.

The delicate equilibrium of their existence is thrown off by two occurrences. A young Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne, “Captive State”) is killed in action in Afghanistan … and she comes back. She’s the first new example of their kind to come along in two centuries. In addition, a mission executed on behalf of a former CIA operative named Copley (Chiwetel Ojiofor, “The Lion King”) captures the attention of a ruthless biotech CEO named Merrick (Harry Melling, “The Keeper”) who sees them as a potential solution to his obsession with life extension.

Andy, Booker, Joe and Nicky have been together for a long time; the addition of Nile changes the dynamic drastically. And with the full resources of Merrick and his company aimed at tracking the group down and taking them prisoner, it will take the best efforts of all of them to avoid a fate far worse than anything they’ve faced before – an unending life as a lab rat in a cage.

“The Old Guard” could have been a forgettable action offering, a simple and formulaic comic book adaptation that just … was. But thanks to a willingness to delve deeper, to offer up moments of character development and relationship dynamics that aren’t always considered important in this kind of film, it is much more than that. The action set pieces are solid and the fight choreography quite good, but it’s the interactions between people that elevate it into something more.

Prince-Bythewood isn’t necessarily the sort of director you’d expect to helm a movie like this one. Her past efforts, while excellent (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Beyond the Lights” – all three of which she wrote), don’t exactly form the resume you’d expect for a director of a franchise-aspirational action movie. Turns out, she’s exactly the right choice, one with a sensibility that allows room for the big choreographed sequences AND the more intimate interpersonal interactions. She has clearly embraced the challenges set forth by a very good script.

Theron is such a magnetic presence on screen; there’s a gravity to her that makes her ideally suited for a role such as this one. She’s unafraid to mix vulnerability with badassitude, with each quality enhancing the other. She feels and fights with equal aplomb; a dynamite performance. Layne is great as Nile, embodying the confusion and fear of her unknown circumstances while still handling her business in the action department. As for the rest of the crew, Schoenaerts handles his business, while Kenzari and Marinelli are a fantastic pairing. The rest – Ojiofor, Melling and so on – are solid as well, but it’s our titular Old Guard that shines throughout.

“The Old Guard” brings summer blockbuster style to Netflix. Thanks to Prince-Bythewood’s direction and the excellent work of the cast, however, it is also steeped in a level of humanity that we don’t always see in the genre. As action leads go, Theron is pretty sensational, gifted in all the necessary facets of the game. And when you drop her into a story as good as this one, well … you’ve got a winner.

If the early returns are any indicator, this won’t be the last time we visit this world. After all, everything old is new again.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 13 July 2020 15:24

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