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‘The Old Guard’ Rises Above its Generic Action Movies Trappings

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In the last five years, Charlize Theron has established a surprisingly thrilling second act in her career as an ass-kicking action star, in such movies as Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde that feature the actress in ample scenes of well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat.  

That tradition continues in The Old Guard, a new film that debuts on Netflix Friday. Its trailer even features Theron, shades of Furiosa, driving a Jeep-like vehicle through what looks like the desert. 

An adaptation of the comic book of the same name by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay, takes the comic book adaptation form in a new and exciting direction. And in this strange summer with no superhero movies, its’ especially refreshing. 

For much of the first act, The Old Guard seems a lot like a normal spy movie, with a spy team heading out on a mission. But it turns out things are much more complex: The team is actually all immortals, who have been alive for thousands of years- if you don’t count their occasional, temporary deaths – and even played roles in centuries worth of world events. 

Theron stars as Andromache of Scythia- Andy for short – the leader of the team of mercenaries. The team also includes Matthias Schoenaerts’ Booker, and two men – Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Yusuf (Marwan Kenzari) – who happen to be a centuries-spanning gay couple. 

The plot involves the team falling into a trap, once an opportunity is brought to them by a CIA agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor.) The plot later pulls in a shady pharmaceutical company (led by Harry Melling), who shows that these days, anything that smacks of either Silicon Valley or cutting-edge entrepreneurship is a sign of full-fledged villainy. 

Meeting the team, meanwhile, is  Nile Freeman (If Beale Street Could Talk standout Kiki Layne) who’s a potential new member of the group. Layne was so riveting in Barry Jenkins’ film that I was wondering when we’d see her again, and she makes the most of this high-profile role. 

The director – and the first African-American woman to direct a superhero movie – is Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose past credits include Love & Basketball (2000), The Secret Life of Bees (2008), and Beyond the Lights (2014); she’s a major talent who doesn’t get opportunities to direct nearly often enough, and serves better than to make a movie roughly once per decade. Here, she choreographs the action very well, in a way that never looks incoherent, as it does in so many action and superhero films.

The cast of “The Old Guard” (Netflix)

Furthermore, the film does some creative things with the form, including inserting the characters in world history in a way that recalls the Woody Allen film Zelig, or perhaps the “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” episode of The X-Files. 

It never feels particularly like a Marvel or DC movie, except for the part in which it blatantly, obviously sets up future sequels. And when those sequels arrive, I’d love to see it make like the X-Men series and follow this group of characters in their adventures throughout history. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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