Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne front a team of immortal soldiers of fortune in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, a possible franchise-starter for Netflix.

“Just because we keep living, it doesn’t mean we stop hurting.” There’s a longstanding screen convention of immortality being anything but desirable, and the protagonists of Netflix’s new comic-book movie The Old Guard sit comfortably alongside vampires, mutants, and Highlanders before them in that same tradition.

Screenwriter Greg Rucka adapts his own comic for this streaming actioner, in which a tight-knit group of immortal warriors reconvene after a year’s sabbatical. Charlize Theron plays their leader Andromache of Scythia, (but please, call her Andy) who’s wary of taking a new assignment from their previous employer Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and is quickly proven right when the job goes south.

But in the process of catching up with Copley, she and her team (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) become aware of US Marine Nile Freeman, (KiKi Layne) the first new immortal in more than 200 years. Together, the immortals find themselves facing a new type of foe in the shape of billionaire pharma bro Merrick, (Harry Melling) the head of a powerful corporation that’s gunning for our heroes.

The film comes from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose previous works include Love & Basketball and the criminally underseen Beyond The Lights. Although she almost helmed one of Sony’s Spider-Man spin-offs, the now-cancelled Silver And Black, this marks her first foray into comic-book action territory and her fresh perspective is very welcome indeed.

From the off, The Old Guard is the increasingly rare potential franchise-starter that’s been built outwards from the scenes that go between the bullet-spraying, axe-swinging action beats. Free of the usual deconstructive impulses that have reigned since the mid-2000s, Prince-Bythewood’s filmography puts her in good stead for a straightforward actioner in which you can get invested in who the characters are, even if you broadly sense what they’re going to do.

The casting helps immeasurably too. Theron continues her recent run of action roles in fare as varied as Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, and Fast & Furious 8, with a character that feels worthy of her acting talents as well as her newfound arse-kicking ability. As the other household name in the cast, Ejiofor is very much taking the “And”, but he’s good here too, bringing a lip-smacking relish to deadpan lines like “There was an unanticipated amount of carnage.”

The rest of the cast is made up of more eclectic choices, most of all Layne. Up until this, she’s best known for her breakthrough turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, but the film is enriched by her naturalistic, empathetic style of acting in the same way as this standard would-be franchise-starter is enriched by its choice of director. At times, it’s obvious when this is setting up further instalments, but in the current market, it deserves a follow-up just for prizing active engagement over episodic awareness.

Even with a two-hour running time, the film has a generous but economical knack for giving us exactly what we need to get on board with the characters, no more and no less. For instance, a crucial aspect of the immortals’ survival in the modern world is set up by the small moment of Andy ingratiating herself with a group of tourists who accidentally snap her in a holiday selfie, so that she can delete the evidence.

This makes time for a balanced approach to showing and telling, including a decently fleshed-out romance between Kenzari and Marinelli’s characters, whose relationship feels like a landmark for gay representation in superhero movies purely for being an actual relationship and not just a quick snog or a chaste, cuttable reference. A man being in love with another man shouldn’t feel revolutionary for a movie like this, but it proves the most striking mark of the film’s characterful approach.

However, it remains a triumph of execution rather than originality. Rucka’s script is well-written but the film works overtime to exceed the familiarity and tameness of the plot, whether through exciting action choreography or interpersonal fireworks. On the more generic side of things, Schoenaerts is slightly ill-served by having to lean into the immortal blues that the rest of the cast are playing more efficiently, and Melling is the latest in a long line of young actors who manfully tries to parlay real-life CEO bro energy into Hollywood villainy but mostly comes out as successfully annoying.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with a well-made, straightforwardly told action movie, and it’s easier to appreciate what it does differently when we’ve had considerably fewer movies like this in recent months. If nothing else, it’s refreshingly unconcerned with made-up mythology, making more time for characters instead. It doesn’t feel like most superhero movies, even if it’s very much been packaged as one, (right down to the pre-credits teaser that elongates the film’s dangliest unresolved sub-plot) and it’s far livelier than most off-Marvel or off-DC outings available.

 

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