There are many praises to be sung about modern action movies. “Emotional complexity” is not among them. Yes, John Wick does show remorse for his wife, puppy, and car. Yes, Rama shows tenderness toward his pregnant wife in The Raid. And yes, Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear does feature both shadows and tears. But these aspects do little more than keep us on the side of the heroes, no matter how many necks they snap.
For that reason, it’s pretty remarkable that the movie stops to let Joe (Marwan Kenzari), one of the immortal warriors of the Netflix action film The Old Guard, sing the praises of his partner and fellow immortal Nicky (Luca Marinelli). When a surly guard mocks their relationship, Joe retorts, “This man is more to me than you can dream … I love this man beyond measure and reason, he’s not my boyfriend … He’s all and he’s more.” Nico responds with a flattered, “You’re an incurable romantic” and a deep kiss.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood lets the scene play out without a hint of irony. Joe is achingly sincere as he sings his lover’s praises. The kiss they share is beautiful and tender. The inclusion of the scene isn’t just an act of defiance against the guard’s homophobia; it defies the logic of action movies. There’s more emotion in that scene than anything found in all three John Wick chapters combined.
That pathos sets The Old Guard apart from its counterparts. Based on the Image Comics series by writer Greg Rucka and artist Leandro Fernandez, the former of whom wrote the screenplay, The Old Guard follows a team of immortal warriors lead by their oldest member, Andromache the Scythian (Charlize Theron), aka Andy. For centuries, any wounds that Andy suffered hurt but magically heal. Together with former rivals in the crusades Joe and Nicky, 19th century Frenchman Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), and their newest recruit, the U.S. soldier Nile (Kiki Layne), Andy takes on dangerous missions to help those who others cannot. Nile’s induction into the group comes at the same time they find themselves exposed by ex-CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who pharma magnate Merrick (Harry Melling) has hired to capture and study the immortals.
Once again proving that she’s among our foremost modern action stars, Theron strikes the perfect balance of goodness and regret. She’s been alive for a long time and wants nothing more than to die. And she will die — at some unspecified time, she and all the immortals will lose their ability to heal without warning. Until then, Andy remains committed to fighting the good fight, even if she wishes she could give up.
And rest assured, they are very good fights. Prince-Bythewood sometimes relies on a few too many edits, but the scenes are visceral and thrilling. The movie does a good job varying locations, from familiar settings like a military compound or an office building to a thrilling contest between Andy and Nile in a cargo plane. Even when the backgrounds offer nothing new, Prince-Bythewood still finds interesting flourishes, often thanks to the ornamental ax Andy wields.
Every member of the cast acquits themselves well here. Ejiofor once again finds a way to make his concern seem menacing. Kiki Layne adds a layer of toughness without losing any of the hopeful romanticism she brought to her role in If Beale Street Could Talk. Schoenaerts finds nuances in the grizzled tough guy stock character. Melling has shed his Dudley Dursley character to be a pharma bro bully. Marinelli is slyly funny as the introverted half of his couple. But Kenzari is the real stand out here, a charismatic screen presence whether he’s making professions of love of being an elite warrior.
The entire movie embraces the lover/fighter duality of Kenzari’s character. It is genuinely exciting and genuinely moving in a way that action films rarely are. Gina Prince-Bythewood has tackled a variety of genres in her impressive career, but here’s hoping she’ll come back to action a little more.