Rating: (3 stars)
Violence isn’t the answer? Tell that to Andy, the leggy, deadly serious leader of a mercenary gang in “The Old Guard.” Adapted from Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández’s graphic novel of the same name, this speculative action thriller possesses more gravitas than the average comic-book fantasy, although it traffics in similar supernatural powers and arcane interior rules. Much of the interest in this well-crafted but overfamiliar piece of world-building is how the movie parcels out crucial information to the audience, about who Andy and her cohorts are and why, precisely, they’re so intent on cutting a murderous swath through every corner of the Earth they’re called to.
Those corners include Morocco, South Sudan and Afghanistan, where this un-merry but hyper-competent band meets a U.S. soldier named Nile, played with flummoxed solemnity by KiKi Layne. It bears noting here that Andy is portrayed by Charlize Theron, reprising the badass persona that made “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Bomb” such entertaining kicks in the pants. When Layne and Theron are together, “The Old Guard” transcends its pulp provenance to become a soulful, emotionally grounded portrait of female mentorship and mutual respect.
Directed with intelligence and finesse by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “Beyond the Lights”), “The Old Guard” hews to the same metronomic rhythms of exposition and explosive action that its genre-mates observe (the most recent example being the John Wick movies). As capably as the fight sequences are choreographed and staged, they become repetitive as the story’s plot moves from the African deserts to the antiseptic glass-and-steel of a London high rise. Although Layne and Theron form the beating heart of what could have been a disposable diversion, Prince-Bythewood provides ample support by way of an ensemble that includes Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli.
Once the full context of Andy’s mission becomes clear, “The Old Guard” takes on a sober, even touching sense of impending grief, and Prince-Bythewood makes sure to give her plenty of moments to reflect on that reality; unlike similar flights of escapism and potency, this one never loses sight of the “human” part of superhuman. Layne, who delivered a breakout performance in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is particularly impressive in a role that makes the most of her quiet, watchful focus even while putting it into a wildly counterintuitive context.
If “The Old Guard” feels overlong by the time Andy faces her final mano-a-mano showdown, the movie earns its running time by creating memorable characters who are perfectly poised for a sequel. Without giving the game away, let’s just say: Time is on their side.
R. Available July 10 on Netflix. Contains sequences of graphic violence and coarse language. 125 minutes.