When talking about Hollywood’s biggest action movie stars, people often leave Charlize Theron out of the conversation. That’s a damn shame too, because she’s been kicking asses across the silver screen for almost two decades. With a few more edgy action flicks like The Old Guard under her belt, Theron’s badass body of work will elevate her into the same rarefied air as Hollywood’s biggest action stars.
Theron is best known as a Hollywood A-lister with talent, striking looks, and an Academy Award win on her resume. But these descriptions don’t tell the entire story, and her eclectic filmography is loaded with the type of genre flicks fans celebrate at Comic-Con.
Theron starred in big-budget fantasies (Snow White and the Huntsman, Kubo and the Two Strings), ambitious sci-fi (Aeon Flux, Prometheus), gritty action flicks (Mad Max Fury Road, Atomic Blonde), and she even embraced her inner Bond villain with a sinister role in the Fate of the Furious. But Theron’s The Old Guard character, Andy, has whopped more ass than all the actress’s past characters combined.
Andy is the world’s deadliest soldier of fortune. But her unrivalled skills come with a catch: Andy has a conscience, which is a major hang-up for someone who kills for a living. Each job she accepts is less about the money than taking down bad guys who put innocent lives in danger.
Andy and her small squad of men, The Old Guard, are the most dangerous mercenaries the world has ever known; they make Kill Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad look like the Teletubbies. Once you hire Andy and her crew, your target is as good as dead. But there’s a secret behind why this team of mercs excels at what they do. They’re almost immortal.
The Old Guard can’t die and they’re hundreds (if not thousands) of years old. They possess a supernatural ability to recover from any injury, even death. The crew have kept their secret safe for centuries by staying off the grid and living like ghosts. But times are changing, and in the information age nobody can hide in plain sight.
Andy’s world descends into chaos once a greedy pharmaceutical company discovers her secret. The company’s sketchy boss Merrick (Harry Melling), wants to capture the immortals so he can replicate and sell their genetic gifts. Life gets even more complicated when an American soldier named Nile (KiKi Layne) returns from the dead. Andy must evade capture while tracking down Nile and taking the fledgling immortal under her wing.
The Old Guard is Gina Prince-Bythewood’s first feature film since 2014’s underseen gem, Beyond the Lights. Before watching the movie, I wanted to see what a director like Prince-Bythewood would bring to a pulpy comic book story like The Old Guard. Prince-Bythewood’s work, most notably Love & Basketball, resonates with viewers by digging deep into a story’s emotional core.
Whether it’s a blue-collar cop falling for a glamorous pop star (Beyond the Lights), or two freaked out teens discovering they have superpowers (Cloak & Dagger), Prince-Bythewood creates intimate moments between characters that we can all relate to. None of us know what it feels like to come back from the dead, but we can relate to Nile, on the brink of a panic attack, running away to be alone and zone-out to Frank Ocean’s track Godspeed. How often do action flicks pump the brakes to stop and dwell on a character’s vulnerability? A number of tender and introspective grace notes separate The Old Guard from other violent and gritty action movies like Netflix’s recent hit, Extraction.
Speaking of Extraction, The Old Guard features some fantastic action set-pieces that put it in the running for the year’s best action flick (though you have to go some ways to top Extraction’s exhilarating chase sequence).
Andy and her crew have hundreds of years of battle experience, and it shows in the way they fight. They engage in combat as though they’re linked through a hive-mind. I got a kick out of how amidst the chaos, the team intuitively places themselves in perfect tactical positions without saying a word. They’re lightning quick, and operate with Terminator-like efficiency – they take down the opposition in as few moves as possible, cutting through swaths of henchmen faster than my German Sheppard went through a handful of Snausages.
While this crew isn’t flashy, their moves are still stylish and thrilling to watch. Andy moves like greased lightning, her lanky limbs slicing through the air with the precision of an Olympic gymnast. Watching Theron topple her opponents with armbars and leg locks never gets old.
Fortunately, the film’s directors of photography, Barry Ackroyd and Tami Reiker do an excellent job framing the action. No matter how frantic the fighting gets, you never lose track of what’s happening on screen. The flow of combat is easy to follow and each physical confrontation tells a unique story.
There’s so much intricate fight choreography happening that you don’t want an overzealous editor to step in and chop it all up and disrupt a battle sequence’s natural flow. Thankfully, the film’s editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire, opts to stay locked into a sequence long enough for you to make sense of what’s going on before cutting to the next shot. That’s something more and more action film editors aren’t willing to do these days.
Beyond the time-hopping flashbacks, special effects, and Theron’s badassery, this film is most interested in examining life’s biggest question: what’s the point of it all?
Andy’s preternaturally long life is a stand-in for feelings that we all wrestle with more than we like to admit. The character is older than recorded history, and yet, she didn’t dedicate her existence to the pursuit of science, art, or religion. She’s become history’s greatest killing machine. This character doesn’t take joy in the act of killing, either – it’s a necessary evil. Andy’s life experience taught her that the best way to tip the scales into justice’s favour is by killing awful people. This dark concept is difficult for an optimist to accept, but whether or not you agree, this is how Andy sees the world. This next part is where things get complicated.
Time and again, Andy uses her abilities to help the helpless by keeping the wolves at bay, and this process works… for a while. Soon after wiping out a threat, another asshole always shows up, ready to murder, rape, enslave, rob, and sow the seeds of discord. It seems that human suffering at the hands of other humans is history’s one true constant. So if this is the case, if things always revert to the horrible mean, what’s the point? What are we even fighting for?
It took me years of meditation, CBT, and anti-depressants to finally realize and accept a point this story drives home beautifully. We all have blind spots that interfere with our growth. Fear, anger, and doubt are like giant neon signs taking up way more space in our minds than they deserve. Their powerful glare draws our focus away from aspects of our lives that deserve more attention. This tendency is hardwired in our DNA and affects some of us more than others. This impulse dates back to prehistoric times when letting down your guard came with the risk of some prehistoric beast eating you alive. Staying stressed out meant staying alert. And staying alert meant staying alive.
People evolved to have stronger reactions to negative stimulation. That’s why stories on social media (even fake ones) that scare or infuriate readers get the most intense reactions and the most shares. It’s not as easy for positive stories to grab and maintain our attention. Some people become so attuned to negativity that they no longer have the emotional bandwidth to pick up positive vibes. It’s in this state of mind that we find Andy at the start of the film.
Even though the stakes in this story aren’t life or death – the heroes are immortal after all – I find the underlying threat more terrifying than Thanos showing up to warp reality. Andy spent her life facing the worst of humanity, and now she’s incapable of seeing humanity’s progress. Instead of the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, this comic book movie deals with healing a person’s pessimistic worldview. It’s a heartbreaking concept that hits close to home.
Who doesn’t feel jaded right now? People refuse to wear masks during a pandemic, a fear-mongering American president sits in office, and police forces are snuffing out black lives with impunity. It’s so easy to rage against what we oppose rather than stand for what we love.
Every day the world provides us with new reasons to get angry and take up arms. The Old Guard urges us to remember what we’re fighting to protect.