Charlize Theron with axe in The Old Guard

Efficient, Concise, Satisfying Action — “The Old Guard”

“The Old Guard” is beautifully restrained. It should be more difficult to describe a movie this violent with those words. That’s what “The Old Guard” is, though. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned (think mid-2000s style) action movie joined with modern sensibilities and absolutely perfected. Like the stellar fight choreography, it’s efficient. It gets in, does what it wants to do, and leaves you wanting the sequel immediately. I already know I’m going to re-watch it because it’s going to be easy as hell to re-watch.

“The Old Guard” stars today’s leading action hero, Charlize Theron, as an immortal who can’t die. She pals around with three other immortals who can’t die, trying to do good in a world that increasingly makes that feel inconsequential. Beneath the movie’s more driving plot, this is quietly its most effective idea. When even those who’ve lived for thousands of years feel like they can’t make a difference, what are those who’ve put years in supposed to feel?

“The Old Guard” centers on a sniveling, egotistical Martin Shkreli-alike who wants to capture our heroes. Why? He wants to extract the secret of their immortality so he can one day market it as a pharmaceutical. I’m not sure if that premise is a bit cheesy or disturbingly relevant. It’s not really what the movie’s about, though. “The Old Guard” is about whether anything we do matters, and answers this in a surprisingly touching way in between bouts of Charlize Theron hacking people apart with an axe.

The story is told to us through the classic ‘new recruit’ trope – we learn because there’s a new immortal. Nile was a soldier in Afghanistan one day, and the next she simply can’t die. Since she has to learn what immortality is all about, we get to as well. We’ve seen that approach a thousand times, but because this is done in a mature, considered way where everyone talks like adults and asks pertinent questions about what’s happening to them, it doesn’t feel like it’s ever wasting the viewer’s time. Often, things are explained through action, and there are zero “tell me about my new powers, but first who’s that boy” distractions.

When I say it plays like a mid-2000s style action movie, I mean this in a good way. Sure, most action movies from that era weren’t great. Same goes for most action movies from any era. Same goes for most movies from any genre of any era. The approach to mid-2000s action had a lot of value, though.

Whether “Bourne”, Bond, or Beckinsale, the 2000s-style action movie was usually episodic in its telling. These episodic sequences would conclude with an action scene that either forced a change in plot, character dynamic, or cued up the switch to a new location. They were efficient and so were their characters. Action was tight and didn’t overstay its welcome, prizing quality over length of sequence. The best of these movies rarely wasted energy or contained excesses. They stayed focused on their characters. The more complex the plot, the more the film tightened to those characters to show us how they inserted themselves into that plot.

There would also usually be an assault on a shining, modern, glowingly white techno-castle built with glass that wanted to shatter so bad it essentially quivered with anticipation (unless it was a goth-action movie; then it was an actual castle and stone walls that burst in a shower of rubble if you so much as breathed on them).

There’s an absolute pleasure in these kinds of movies, especially in an age of bloat. They focus in on character over bombast. Rarely is the world at stake. Usually it’s something much closer and more accessible to viewers – characters’ own lives or freedom, the lives of a handful of people, or their idea of who they are.

These days, I’m a bit worn on superhero movies, though I still love them. But come on – none of them are examples of lean, efficient storytelling. I’m not saying they’re worse or better or anything. I’m just saying we have a surplus of them, and not as much of this kind of more efficient action movie. It’s refreshing to have a movie that’s essentially about a type of superhero that just gets on with its storytelling.

Then there’s the other type of modern action movie we see:

That’s the extremely bloated, grittastic action drencher that invariably features the secretly-wants-to-die hunk-chop beef-cheese hero communing with his gaping punctured lung as the driving electrobeat freezes in a drone long enough for him to consider the dichotomy of the release of death and a sudden appreciation for the beauty in life, while we wonder if their sniper will shoot him before his sniper shoots their sniper before their helicopter shoots his sniper before he has a chance to dropkick one more dude for good measure (wussup “Extraction”, I love you!) The point is, it’s also refreshing to have something that is completely disinterested in grit, wallowing, self-hatred, Soderberghian-yellow air, or trying to be Hemingway-but-only-the-drunk-parts.

“The Old Guard” conveys emotion without having to beat you over the head with it. It’s funny and charming without having to turn everything (or anything) into a laugh line or memeable moment. It’s a low-stress action movie, which is not the style of action movie that usually gets made right now. And yet that doesn’t mean it lacks in thrill, quality, beauty, or even wow factor.

The direction is good, the storytelling concise and to the point, the performances all deliver a lot of emotional information in quick beats, and the fight choreography is an utter dream. It’s eminently watchable, and completely satisfying.

“The Old Guard” can be watched on Netflix.

Does “The Old Guard” Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Old Guard” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Charlize Theron plays Andy and KiKi Layne plays Nile. They’re the film’s two leads.

In addition, Natacha Karam plays Dizzy, Mette Towley plays Jordan, Van Veronica Ngo plays Quynh, Olivia Ross plays Celeste, Anamaria Marinca plays Dr. Kozak, and Majid Essaidi plays Sadeq.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. Each of the characters just listed except Dr. Kozak speaks to another of the women characters.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Andy and Nile speak about tactical plans, their individual history, women in their families, and a range of other topics. Dizzy and Jordan speak about Nile. Celeste is a brief character with one of the most powerful scenes.

As a note, the film is directed by a woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood. I also try to note when male-dominated fields are held by women in the crew: One of the two directors of photography is Tami Reiker, and the editor is Terilyn A. Shropshire.

Getting back to Bechdel-Wallace, the film does pretty well on this front. Of course, it fulfills the three questions, but that’s always only a start. The film respects the women in it and centers its focus on their perspective of the world. In a clever way, it also tackles the perspectives of two generations looking at the state of the world – one through Theron asking if anything they’ve done has made things better, the other through Nile tackling the problems they’re still struggling to understand with hope and fresh determination.

It’s also a fairly inclusive film on other fronts. Major roles featuring Black actors include KiKi Layne as Nile and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Copley, an ex-CIA contact. One of the immortals is played by Tunisian-Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari. Several supporting roles feature actors of color.

Two of our immortals are in a same-sex relationship and the movie treats this as most other films would treat a heterosexual one: the casual everyday partnership of life, the romantic moments, the desire, it’s all there. It doesn’t feel tokenistic; it feels genuine and valued.

The film isn’t as diverse as the world, but it’s a lot closer than most movies of its type.

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