Rebecca’s Take

During the summer movie season, action-heavy tentpoles typically dominate the big screen. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, audiences have had to turn to the small screen for entertainment. The good news is big-budget actioners have found a home on streaming services, with Netflix stepping up to fill the void.

After the success of the relentless “Extraction,” Netflix continues to build credibility in the genre with the action-packed “The Old Guard.” Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the tense and riveting thriller about a group of immortal warriors unleashes eye-popping set pieces and unexpected depth. The gritty flick is the perfect vehicle for star Charlize Theron’s talents.

“The Old Guard” follows a group of mercenaries – Andromache of Scythia (Theron), who goes by Andy; Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) – who have banded together for centuries to fight for worthy causes. When the group takes on a job for former CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the mission goes sideways, exposing the crew’s extraordinary healing abilities. Their immortality catches the interest of Merrick (Harry Melling), a ruthless pharmacy company executive who seeks to exploit the group’s powers.

When Andy and the crew go on the run, they learn of a new immortal – Nile (KiKi Layne), a Marine who survives a brutal attack in Afghanistan. The group of warriors must find and recruit Nile as they try to evade capture and protect their secret.

Known for “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights,” director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes an impressive first foray into action with “The Old Guard.” Prince-Bythewood helms a sleek, stylish and extremely violent thriller that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. The well-staged sequences include the group’s botched mission in a South Sudan bunker (I spied some gun fu), a terrifying ambush on the crew’s safe house and a no-holds-barred fight in a laboratory. The film’s special effects are grounded and seamless, especially the characters’ healing abilities.

The scenes are edited in methodical and slow cuts that allow viewers to see and appreciate the choreography of the action. The deliberate approach could be a reaction to the overused shaky cam and quick cuts that came to define recent action franchises, such as the Jason Bourne films and “Taken” entries. Accompanying the action is a great rhythmic electropop and R&B soundtrack, including the soothing “Silence” from Marshmello featuring Khalid.

Although “The Old Guard” thrives on adrenaline, the film knows when to pause the action and let its story breathe. The actioner alternates between exciting and emotional as it charts its characters’ development and themes. In between set pieces, the mercenaries question the cost of their immortality, from the loved ones they’ve lost to whether their actions have done any good. The purpose of their gifts is an ongoing mystery. Though the film starts off with the predictable mission-gone-wrong, “The Old Guard” upends viewer expectations and keeps audiences guessing throughout the film.

The film showcases the evolution of the magnificent Theron as an action heroine. The actress is a force of nature onscreen, demonstrating her physical prowess as she fires off guns and employs hand-to-hand combat. As the group’s world-weary leader, Andy is the oldest warrior and the most introspective. With just a look, Theron masterfully conveys Andy’s regrets and inner turmoil.

For Theron, Andy represents a combination of the actress’ past roles. Her cropped black hair harkens back to her steely look in “Aeon Flux.” The immortal warrior acts as an extension of her mysterious character in “Hancock.” Andy’s hardened demeanor is reminiscent of the iconic Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and she wields control over any situation like superspy Lorraine Broughton in “Atomic Blonde.” With “The Old Guard,” Theron reaches a new pinnacle, cementing her status as an action superstar.

The bold actioner isn’t afraid to take chances for its genre. In a same-sex relationship not usually explored in a blockbuster, Joe and Nicky are a gay couple who have been together for a thousand years. As the eloquent Joe, Kenzari delivers one of the most touching monologues about the nature of love that I have ever heard. The stirring scene is the couple’s highlight. But for as memorable as the moment is, the actors deserve more screen time.

Let’s not forget the rest of the stellar cast. As Andy’s right-hand man Booker, Schoenaerts adds layers as the only member of the group to remember what it was like to have a family. The sympathetic Ejiofor shines as the conflicted CIA agent torn between sides. Melling is goofy yet menacing as Merrick, a “Pharma Bro” parody.

If there’s a weak link, it would be Layne. As the group’s new recruit Nile, the young actress from “If Beale Street Could Talk” taps into the soldier’s bravery and understandable disbelief. But Layne also appears stiff, giving a performance that borders on flat.

“The Old Guard” is part of a new guard of action movies to land on Netflix during the coronavirus pandemic. Between this and “Extraction,” the streaming service is establishing itself as a hub for heart-stopping action.

Gripping and smart, “The Old Guard” takes viewers on a rollicking thrill ride with the promise of a new action franchise. With a fun crew lead by Theron at her peak, here’s to more adventures with our new favorite group of immortals.

4 out of 5 stars

Charlize Theron, left, and KiKi Layne star in “The Old Guard.”

Joe’s Take

Charlize Theron has leaned into some action roles over the past five years with one (2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”) turning out better than the others (2017’s “Atomic Blonde” and “The Fate of the Furious”). In “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” she shines as an action star, mastering the physicality of the roles. “The Fate of the Furious” sits her behind a computer. Even still, if a movie has Theron, she’s going to give her best. The question is will the movie be good enough to support her effort.

Based on a comic book, “The Old Guard” starts off with a voiceover from Theron as she lies on the ground dead for the time being as she heads a group of immortal mercenaries. Then it rewinds to show the audience how she got to that moment. I feel like that technique is tired at this point. “Extraction” used the same trope a few months ago. I don’t think it adds much to the film, especially since the movie catches up to that future scene rather quickly. What it truly foreshadowed was the filmmakers’ inability to push “The Old Guard” over the top.

As I said, the setup is very similar to “Extraction” and it doesn’t stop with the opening scene. In both films, the group is betrayed by its employer. There is also a young character in each film that needs to be rescued, although “The Old Guard’s” Nile (played by Kiki Layne) is more than capable of defending herself and inflicting damage. Inevitably, I compared “The Old Guard” to “Extraction” throughout my viewing. That didn’t bode well for “The Old Guard.”

The story in “Extraction” proved pretty run-of-the-mill, but it knew its purpose, which was to showcase its action. It did that, highlighted by a 12-minute set piece that was edited as one shot.

“The Old Guard” has a bland and predictable plot, which is strange for a comic book movie based on immortality. If I know what’s coming every step of the way, that’s a bad sign for the movie. Again, “Extraction” didn’t have an interesting plot either, but it knew it would wow the audience with great action. “The Old Guard” has solid action scenes, but it also litters other sequences with quick cuts where the audience can’t see what’s happening. This is a film that should have leaned hard into its action. Instead nothing really stood out about it. That’s a shame because the actors seemed to be solid physical performers, led by Theron.

She brings a great presence as a believable action star, which she has proven over the years. Even in the underwhelming “Atomic Blonde” her fight sequences stand out as she masters the choreography, especially during a one-take stairwell battle. However, she is never given the opportunity to truly show off her talent. There should have been one awesome scene with a long tracking shot of either Theron or the group. While the sequences have strong moments, the scenes never came together in a complete package. Don’t get me wrong, the action was pretty good for the most part. But it should have been great. The actors could have handled it, but the filmmakers let them down.

While the story is bland, “The Old Guard” does a nice job developing its characters and establishing the stakes. It also has a strong diverse cast. Theron (Andy) is easily the best, but I enjoyed gay characters Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who were the loves of each others’ lives. Layne goes toe-to-toe with Theron, which is impressive. She continues to grow as an actress after 2018’s Oscar-winning “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Matthias Schoenaerts (Booker) works in his role and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Copley) is overqualified for his part. The only character who underwhelms is Merrick (Harry Melling). The corporate villain in an action movie doesn’t always work because he or she can’t fight the good guys.

It was also important to establish stakes for the team, especially since it centers on immortality. If your characters can’t die, what is keeping the audience engaged? “The Old Guard” does a nice job with this, giving the audience a horrifying scenario and establishing that the immortality doesn’t last forever.

As movies do nowadays, “The Old Guard” includes an in-credits stinger, which leaves the film open for a potential sequel. I thought there was a better way to handle it, so I didn’t care for the stinger.

Ultimately, I enjoyed “The Old Guard.” It has great character development, which makes the audience care about the team of mercenaries. They establish the stakes, which keep the viewers on the edge of their seats. Led by Theron, the acting is strong as the cast handles the verbal and physical acting expertly. However, it’s clear it could have been better, but the film failed to lean into its strengths.

3 out of 5 stars