"Is this even safe?" KiKi Layne's Nile Freeman asks as she looks around a rickety Russian plane.
"Does it matter?" shrugs Charlize Theron's Andy, looking tough in a black tank top and Chet Baker-like haircut.
In a typical action movie it's a typical line — macho, heroic bluster. But The Old Guard, Netflix's sensational superhero film based on Greg Rucka's comic and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is not typical.
Andy, whose full name is Andromache the Scythian, leads a small group of do-gooder warriors who cannot die. They can be injured, and they can certainly feel pain, but their Wolverine/Deadpool-esque healing factor will quickly patch them together again no matter how badly they are bruised. This imperviousness to injury, not to mention their longevity, can lead to a certain world-weary attitude, even as they roam the globe, looking for wrongs that need righting. "Does it matter?"
In addition to Andy, as old as antiquity, there's her right arm, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who discovered his abilities in combat with Napoleon's armies. There's also Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicki (Luca Marinelli), two men on either side of combat during the Crusades who fought and then fell in love. There were others in the group over the centuries, but to divulge too much about their fates is to give too much away about this story.
Nile, a US marine serving in Afghanistan, is the newest member of the group. The other four simultaneously dreamed of her when she experienced her first death during a task force operation. Andy quickly zips to her base to spirit her away before doctors can start poking around too much, wondering why the heck she cannot die. The rest of the gang, however, are back at a safe house, because they've just survived a set-up by a questionable ex-CIA operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a sinister, master-of-puppets pharmabro played to annoying perfection by Harry Melling. It is all leading to a big showdown, with some serious aha! twists along the way.
The set-up may be fairly standard post-X-Men superhero stuff, but there are a number of things that make this movie stand out. On one side, there's some really badass action sequences. Theron, coming off Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, is swimming in a familiar pond as she destroys baddies one by one. If you like watching her stomp down corridors, flinging death in all directions, this is the movie for you. The choreography is remarkable, but it's not too gory as these things go.
Then there is that thing all superhero movies talk about but rarely get right: world-building. Using flashback snapshots, Rucka's script entices us with just enough cool stuff from the past; it's extremely less-is-more (you may even grab the remote to catch a glimpse of an awesome costume), but this economic type of storytelling works wonders to keep the wheels spinning without hampering forward momentum. These scenes come during moments when the characters stop and talk to one another, which brings us to what ultimately makes The Old Guard so special.
Prince-Bythewood's last feature film, Beyond the Lights, is a melodrama about the perils of fame — a very 1930s-type movie with a 2010s gloss. It's a beautiful and heartfelt story with not much in there suggesting that an action-heavy comic book movie was next. (This just proves that if you give a talented person a shot, she's likely more than capable to handle it.) What is ported over, though, is the genuinely touching and humane scenes between the characters.
In too many superhero films the glue between the action set pieces are mostly wisenheimer jokes. It can be fun, but there isn't much weight. More often than not, when there is an attempt to slip in some genuine drama, everything grinds to a dull halt. That is not the case with The Old Guard. To put it bluntly: This is the rare action movie in which the talk-y bits are actually the best part. Everyone involved is terrific, and all of the characters are battling serious personal demons. (I was personally most touched by Ejiofor, but there's a lot of competition!) When the acting and writing and directing is this good you can put aside the preposterousness of the situation and think, yes, what would it be like to be immortal and walk the Earth watching everyone you know die? This movie crackles with action, but it is also poignant and sad.
It also ends with one of the most "HOLD ON!" endings I've seen in a while. So it's important everyone watch this movie. If Netflix's all-seeing eye clocks enough streams, it'll hopefully get everyone on board for a sequel.
TV Guide rating: 4/5
The Old Guard is now streaming on Netflix.