Charlize Theron Leads a Band of Immortal Warriors in Impressive Action Ride ‘The Old Guard’
Netflix’s “The Old Guard” proves genre films can still be made with a good sense of artistry while cheerfully dabbling in absurdly fun storytelling. It is also a refreshing celebration of diversity in popcorn cinema. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is the first Black female filmmaker helming a comic adaptation and has delivered a strong film defined by slick action scenes.
Charlize Theron plays Andy, the leader of a group of adventurers that includes Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). What binds them is the fact that they’re each a few centuries old. This means that for whatever unexplained reason they have a physical immortality meaning their injuries heal automatically. Booker was once a soldier in the Napoleonic wars, Joe and Nicky met and fell in love during the Crusades, and the oldest is Andy, whose real name is Andromache of Scythia. She’s been around for at least 6,000 years. The group is hired by former CIA man Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to carry out a rescue mission in South Sudan but when the group arrive they are ambushed but manage to escape. All along Copley was working for Merrick (Harry Melling), a billionaire who wants to harness the warriors’ DNA to create an eternal youth drug. As Andy and her team track down Copley they also come across Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan who also possesses the same immortal gift.
Before “The Old Guard,” Prince-Bythewood was best known as the director of intelligent romances like “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights.” Like Christopher Nolan or Steven Soderbergh, Prince-Bythewood brings a great visual and sense of storytelling to a genre that has been marked by an over-reliance on CGI fireworks. She actually establishes a rich sense of place in the tradition of classic action films. The screenplay is by Greg Rucka and is based on his own graphic novel. Like the best fantasies it uses exaggerated ideas to touch on deeper issues. Andy and her team have some typical superhero flourishes, the least of which is Andy correctly guessing that some baklava Booker brings her is from eastern Turkey. But there is a particular melancholy to them as well. Each is aware they’ve lived a very long time. Andy is haunted by a love affair in the Middle Ages that ended with her immortal partner thrown into the sea as a witch, Joe and Nicky have a well-written bond that has lasted since the Crusades, expressed in a scene where Joe delivers one of the most endearing monologues you will hear this year in a popcorn movie. “The Old Guard” also confirms that we have finally begun entering an era of true diversity in action films. The warriors are led by a woman and are not relegated to just one ethnicity.
Marwan Kenzari, who plays Joe, recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about joining this film’s unique cast. “I read the script back in early 2019, I was shooting a movie in Indonesia, and I read the script after a long day on set. I read it immediately and I loved it. I thought it was a great world,” said Kenzari. “It had a lot of mystery, I was immediately attracted to these characters and their mystery… I read the graphic novel and loved that too.”
An actor of Tunisian-Dutch descent, Kenzari has worked on a wide variety of films like last year’s “Aladdin” where he played the villainous Jafar. Now “The Old Guard” is added to his growing and eclectic resume. “I went from shooting a 1947 war movie set in Indonesia to this one. There was some physical preparation that had to be done and fight training. I was very lucky. Our group had chemistry quite soon. We get along very well which makes everything easier.”
Prince-Bythewood finds a great balance between tone and physicality. Action scenes are choreographed with inventive style, like a shot tracking across some windows through which we see the flashes of Andy’s gun taking down opponents. “To be very honest I would want to prepare physically for every movie, doesn’t matter if the character is sitting in a chair for the entire movie or not,” said Kenzari. “I think physical preparation makes your mind stronger too. If you feel your legs and back are strong, it doesn’t matter what the character is like, you will feel that when you walk on set. You will be sharp, flexible and fast. It might not be the case for everyone. I’ve always been into sports. For me it has always been to feel good physically. I’m not saying that I’m always in shape, but it’s all about balance.”
The team of “The Old Guard” also has the feel of a true group of comrades who have been through a lot. Their banter, the urgency when someone is injured, and how everyone accepts Nile into the group, it’s all very authentic. It is a unique feature for a hot-blooded action movie. “First off Charlize is an amazing actress and has proven that in many, many movies. She has the experience as an actress and producer, and is a passionate filmmaker. She is so passionate about movie making and you learn a lot from someone that experienced. You keep your eyes open and she’s also a lot of fun to be around. Charlize is always joking around a lot but is serious when she needs to be, is very focused when she needs to be. She is very determined to get it right. That’s inspiring. You want to work harder when you see someone like her work that hard. In terms of the rest of the cast I was lucky to be around actors like these, all of them have proven to be very sensitive, intelligent actors. They’ve all done amazing work in other movies. I’m grateful to be with them. We became friends. I actually miss them.”
“Gina has a lot of patience and is a very kind human being,” said Kenzari about Prince-Bythewood , “she’s very sweet and comfortable with her actors. She likes to listen to her actors and find out what you think and feel and what you believe in. I think on the other hand Charlize being the leader of the pack and also being the producer of the movie brought an added level of passion to the project. It was great working with Gina.”
How is everyone in this team immortal? Like “Highlander” this movie feels like a set-up for a grander adventure to come where such answers will be delivered. A final battle that ends with a fierce “car crash” establishes new relationships and an open door for a sequel. The “Old Guard” are consolidated into more than just a roaming group of heroes. It is a fitting conclusion, since Prince-Bythewood proves that in the hands of a strong director with great actors like Theron and Kenzari, a popcorn movie can be entertaining and also offer much more.
“The Old Guard” begins streaming July 10 on Netflix.