As much as I enjoy watching Tom Cruise and Dwayne Johnson and Chadwick Boseman and Gal Gadot and Chris Hemsworth et al. ripping it up in the movies, my favorite action star right now is …
Charlize Theron. Come on! Who’s with me?
From “Aeon Flux” (2005) through “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) through “Atomic Blonde” (2017) and now “The Old Guard,” Theron is the baddest badass of all the badasses — an Academy Award-winning acting talent with a movie-star presence, world-class beauty, wicked sense of humor, a serious approach to comic-book material and the ability to make us believe she’s capable of taking down a room of villains in close quarters.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, “The Old Guard,” which started streaming Friday on Netflix, is a perfect showcase for Theron’s skill set. This is a rousing and satisfying actioner that occasionally gets bogged down in complicated exposition but presents some intriguing twists on time-honored themes about the double-edged sword of immortality.
Consider Theron’s 1,000-year-old warrior Andromache the Scythian, and thank goodness she’s called Andy for short. Andy is an immortal who feels pain and bleeds and suffers but cannot die, who has all the human emotions but none of the human concerns about the frailty of life. She denies herself the experience of falling in love, of making great mortal friends, of having children — because they would only die, and she would go on living, and what’s she supposed to do, fall in love all over again? It would be a constant cycle of mourning everyone you care about.
Andy is the leader of a typical action-movie ragtag band of immortal fighters, including Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), a card-carrying member since the early 19th century, and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), a gay couple who met-brute when they “killed” each other during the Crusades while fighting on opposite sides and have been together for hundreds of years. The newest member of the group is a United States Marine named Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne), who is killed in combat in Afghanistan — only to rise up and take out the enemy who had just slashed her throat. If you think he’s freaked out, imagine Nile’s reaction to becoming something of a zombie, albeit a zombie who is fully self-aware, doesn’t stagger about in search of humans to eat and still looks the same.
After an early and bloody and well-choreographed action sequence from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, we hear Andy in voice-over, wondering if there will come a time when the wounds will not heal, when the stopped heart won’t resume beating: “I’ve been here before over and over again, and each time the same question: Is this it? Will this be the one? And each time the same answer … and I’m just so tired of it.”
Andy even takes a year off to heal emotionally and spiritually. But then it’s time to get back in the game. There are bad guys to be defeated, wrongs to be righted, situations to be handled. (The outside world views them as mercenaries, but these wisecracking, grimy killers are more Avengers-like than they’d admit.)
The always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Copley, a former CIA operative who has aligned himself with the wrong guy: the obligatory sniveling, odious, Big Pharma villain Merrick (Harry Melling, who was Dudley Dursey in the “Harry Potter” films), who has obtained footage of Andy and the team miraculously healing from their wounds and intends to have them captured and sliced up so he can sell their DNA to the highest bidder. “We can all wave goodbye to dementia!” howls Merrick.
“Mr. Merrick, this is about science, not profits,” says Copley, as he realizes, maybe too late, he’s been aiding and abetting a Nazi-esque madman. Come on Copley, haven’t you seen any of those movies with greedy corporate villains who want to kill magnificent beings for their blood and tissue?!
There’s more than a little Furiosa from “Fury Road” in Theron’s look and steely-eyed lethality. But “The Old Guard” is a more existential vehicle, with an ambitious and ethereal score, beautiful mood-piece cinematography and some heavy notes, including certain characters sharing memory/dreams, provocative flashbacks (imagine being discovered as an immortal during the era of literal witch hunts) and some truly stunning reveals about Andy’s tragic past.
With all the plot machinations and stylish action sequences and heavy thoughts swirling about “The Old Guard,” the force holding it all together is Charlize Theron, one of the great action stars of our time.