Recently, The New York Times ran an entire article about how enjoyable it is to watch Charlize Theron fight. Frankly, it wasn’t long enough. Given how much I like to watch Theron punch people, I’d like to read several thousand more words on the subject.
Instead, I rewatched Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard (Netflix), in which Theron plays an immortal warrior who, with a small team of other immortals, tries to do some good in the world by taking out bad guys. She has centuries of experience, but the villains have changed over the years. Once, she fought armies. Now, the enemy is an amoral pharmaceutical CEO who looks at Andy (Theron) and her team and sees deathless lab rats. (The movie is based on a comic by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay.)
But let’s not get distracted by the plot, which does what it needs to do in satisfying and even subtle ways. The draw here is twofold: One, yes, is watching Theron fight, watching her climb the walls of a tiny airplane or flip men over her shoulders. The other is the lived-in found-family feel of Andy’s team. The youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), puts whiskey in his tea and mourns the loss of his sons, a mere 200 years ago. Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) found each other in the Crusades, when they fought on opposite sides; they’ve been a couple ever since they stopped fighting.
Deftly, lovingly, Rucka’s screenplay establishes how much history these four have: They tease and praise each other, switching effortlessly between languages, fighting like an eight-armed single being. Prince-Bythewood can suggest entire lifetimes with close-ups of Theron’s face, where all her years of love, exhaustion, trust and gratitude show plainly in every expression. When a new immortal appears, Andy’s response is mixed. She wants to bring young, scared Nile (KiKi Layne) into the fold. But she knows what a burden immortality is.
This weight — the weight of centuries — fuels The Old Guard. In Andy and Booker, the years feel real, and heavy, and hard. And lonely. They’ve lost people; half their stories are about lost family, whether blood or chosen. But they can still be surprised. When Nile’s anger and fear boil up and she throws herself into a fight with Andy, Theron’s face is stoic, tired — until it’s not. Until it lights up with surprise, with delight at what this new member of her family is already capable of.
Responsibility and love exist here in careful balance. Joe and Nicky’s love balances Booker’s overwhelming grief; Andy’s sense of purpose, which only grows stronger throughout the film, is a counterweight to the wry practicality with which she approaches immortality. She has no answers for Nile’s most basic questions: there is no “why.” There’s only “what”: What will you do with your time? Does it matter if you don’t know how much of it there is?
The Old Guard can be a little on the nose sometimes, especially in its music choices. When it finally gets around to a sequence of the whole gang fighting together, I desperately wished for more of that; the choreography is stellar character work. Joe and Nicky need more story (if only this were a series, and we could have whole episodes of them!). But there’s so much more to like than to correct. Action films often veer from heroics to hate, with little room for nuance and little time for forgiveness. The Old Guard makes that space. Sure, when you’re immortal, you have more time to learn from your mistakes. But it’s a thing all of us need the time and the grace to do.