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Charlize Theron prepares to draw her axe in The Old guard Photo: Aimee Spinks/Netflix

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The Old Guard passes the ax to a slick new set of action heroes

The Netflix movie makes an action director out of Gina Prince-Bythewood

As franchises grow older, the entertainment industry is seeing an increasing number of stories about legacy characters passing the baton to a new generation. Some established series, like the Ghostbusters movies (now headed into yet another new reboot/sequel) or the ever-sprawling Marvel Universe, need younger actors or fresh storylines so the property doesn’t go stale. And sometimes new creators just want the freedom to take familiar stories in new directions. When that happens, some characters bow out gracefully before their time’s up. Others are unceremoniously written out of the narrative. But not all older characters want to move on.

Beyond the Lights writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood sets up her newest film (and her first potential action franchise) The Old Guard at the start of a baton-pass between veteran warrior Andy (Charlize Theron) and young Marine Nile (KiKi Layne). The characters and the tight-knit group they travel with, including Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), are immortal souls who use their healing superpowers for the greater good, rescuing mere mortals from many varieties of doom. It’s a thankless job: mortals used to want to burn people with powers at the stake. The modern equivalent is dissecting them to find a potential cure for all human ails. Worse, at some point, even the immortals can lose their abilities. Turns out they’re still human after all.

Based on the graphic-novel series by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, the screen adaptation of The Old Guard feels like a slick, trimmed-down version of a more expansive mythology. Most of the characters have centuries worth of trauma and violence behind them. Andy, short for Andromache, begins to feel her centuries of good deeds have been pointless, as the world is slipping deeper and deeper into chaos. She doesn’t shift her view until she meets Nile, who only recently discovered her X-Men-like ability to heal from mortal wounds. Meanwhile, Nile has to cope with the requirements of her new life, including a sudden, unceremonious separation from her family.

Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, and their team stand with their backs to a conspiracy string-board in The Old Guard. Photo: Netflix

Even if the premise sounds familiar, The Old Guard never feels stale. Prince-Bythewood and Rucka inject much-needed energy to the action genre with the movie’s diverse cast, its voluminous story, and its clear-cut fight scenes. In some respects, The Old Guard feels like a return to action thrillers, but there are so few with women in charge of a group, we’ve only seen it in movies like Charlie’s Angels or another Theron vehicle, Mad Max: Fury Road.

In these movies, it’s usually women leading other women, or working altogether on an equal basis. However, the heroes in The Old Guard include characters who are women, men, Black, white, queer, straight, Muslim and Christian. Their identities aren’t just token details, they play a part in the way their characters react, like Nile’s reluctance to kill bad guys, or Nicky and Joe’s emotional kiss in defiance of captors. But Andy is the group’s clear-cut leader, and she and eventually Nile call the shots. The film celebrates women taking charge, women mentoring other women, and women giving other women the chance to take the lead. Plus, as one of the few action movies out this summer while many U.S. theaters remain closed, it’s a 2020 survivor in a category of its own.

One of the movie’s strengths lies in how these characters support or clash with each other. Nothing phases Andy, who visibly grows more cynical with every minute onscreen. Theron excels at playing the part of a weary warrior who’s still out on the battlefield after several wars have come and gone. As Nile, Layne plays her part as an awkward outsider with too many questions, dealing with her own natural distrust. Nile’s arrival doesn’t disrupt Andy’s confidence, but their relationship does bring out some personality traits Andy has lost touch with.

Booker is grief-stricken over the mortal loved ones he’s lost, and he and another lost immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), become cautionary tales about the downside to living for decades on end. Fortunately, Joe and Nicky offer some respite as the group’s token couple, providing some much-needed warmth and affection to Theron and Schoenaerts’ steely performances. After an ambush, the crew ends up on the run from the clutches of the well-intentioned but misguided Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and obsessively power-hungry pharma-bro Merrick (the Harry Potter movies’ Harry Melling). While both are shortchanged as antagonists, they work enough as adversaries worth battling.

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne punch the crap out of each other in a plane in The Old Guard. Photo: Aimee Spinks / Netflix

While a few other portions of Rucka’s script feel too trimmed-back, the story continuously moves forward in a way that’s designed to keep audiences from experiencing any narrative void. Prince-Bythewood and cinematographers Barry Ackroyd and Tami Reiker carefully moderate their action sequences so the shots are full of movement, yet don’t lose sight of who’s fighting who. They follow kicks and punches closely toward their painful destinations on villains’ faces or necks. Bullets don’t fly as freely as they do in series like the John Wick movies, but The Old Guard still amasses a high body count and its fair share of bloody injuries. These action heroes can take the bullets others can’t and bounce back like video-game characters with many lives — until those run out.

Any scenes or music cues that feel false or overplayed are rare enough that they don’t get in the way of The Old Guard’s straightforward action story. Since Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 debut Love and Basketball, she’s shown that she knows how to set up action scenes without sacrificing the story, or the character details that makes audiences care who wins a fight. While she’s excelled at personal dramas like The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights, she’s only now getting the runway to show off her skills in a genre full of explosions, bullets, knives, axes, and a jaw-dropping dive off the side of a building.

It’s exciting to watch her keep up the movie’s heart-pounding pace, nimbly maneuver between exposition and fight scenes, and give her cast the chance to take the lead. With The Old Guard, Prince-Bythewood is taking a lead of her own, showing that this old genre still has much more life left in it, if it’ll let outsiders take charge.

The Old Guard is streaming on Netflix now.