☞ Gina Prince-Bythwood on The Old Guard’s female-centred action
Gina Prince-Bythewood turns her attention from youthful romance (Love & Basketball, 2000; Beyond the Lights, 2014) to geriatric action with this comic-book adaptation. Charlize Theron stars as Andy (short for Andromache of Scythia), an ancient soul in a lean and fit body: she’s the leader of a small band of immortal warriors who traverse the earth kicking butt on the side of the angels. KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) plays Nile, a US marine who’s the newest death-defying recruit to her resilient outfit.
Theron is no stranger to the action genre, with Aeon Flux (2005) and Atomic Blonde (2017) under her gunbelt, but more impressively, her shaven-headed Furiosa in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
That film is recalled here as Andy rumbles her jeep across the desert, and Theron is at ease in a series of neck-snapping fight sequences: taking on a team of assailants in a church, or a gruelling duel with Nile on a plane. Speaking of that plane ride, Andy’s such a badass that she stands up for take-off, straphanging with one hand, chugging vodka with the other.
Andy’s immortality is on the decline though; she’s hurting all over, haunted by regret and double-crossed by an old ally, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. An evil pharma CEO (a weaselly Harry Melling) wants to abduct her team and steal their DNA. So she heads back into the fray with Nile, and the rest: de facto deputy Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) and eternal lovers Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari).
Everything that happens next is fairly predictable, and sadly the pace slows down after a promisingly punchy first hour. Much of the narrative is setting the wheels in motion for a sequel or seven.
However, The Old Guard taps into a cache of authentic emotion that most action franchises can’t reach – certainly not Marvel and DC’s recent female-led superheroics. Theron and Layne are a neat pairing, Hollywood-butch, with believable bravado. Thanks to their chemistry or Prince-Bythewood’s deft direction, they wrangle a little religious symbolism into the story – the kind that usually sinks a superhero tale. And if you want romance, Prince-Bythewood has you covered when, provoked by a homophobic jeer, Joe describes his true love Nicky in glowing terms: “He’s all, and he’s more”.