There’s a thing you can always count on in blockbuster movie culture: If a popcorn genre hangs around long enough, after a while it’s going to merge with another popcorn genre it seemingly has nothing to do with. That’s what happened when “Kingsman: Secret Service” (2014) fused the setting and attitude of a James Bond thriller with the fanciful bang-bang-ballet-in-the-air action of a superhero movie.
It happens again in “The Old Guard.” Adapted from the 2017 graphic novel by Greg Rucka (who wrote the screenplay), the movie is about a team of crime-fighting immortals whose flesh can repair itself from bullet wounds and knife stabs like something out of an “X-Men” film. But they’re also a down-and-dirty crew of leather-jacketed renegades who find a way to do maximum damage with machine guns and windpipe-smashing moves like something out of a Jason Statham payback special. You could call them The I-Team (I for “immortal”). You could also call the film “X-Men: The Expendables Edition.”
The leader of this posse of ageless commandos is Andromache of Scythia, known as Andy (Charlize Theron), who we meet in Morocco, where she’s wearing Ray-Bans and a black T-shirt and a sharply edged dark-brown version of a late-’70s David Bowie coif. She looks like a refugee from a motorcycle commercial, which makes you think the film is going to be some convoluted exercise in numbingly abstract action iconography. But “The Old Guard,” if anything, goes in the opposite direction; it’s like an immortal-mercenary hangout movie. Chunks of the picture are logy and formulaic (it dawdles on for two hours), but the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood (making a major lane change after “Love & Basketball” and “The Secret Life of Bees”), stages the fight scenes with ripe executionary finesse, and she teases out a certain soulful quality in her cast.
According to the film’s theology of invincibility, each team member was killed at a certain moment in history, only to wake up and learn that from that point on they would be immortal. Andy is the oldest — she can’t even remember how long she’s been at this — and Theron, as cuttingly fierce as you want her to be (especially when she’s wielding a circular medieval Asian slicing weapon), acts like someone who’s bone-tired after a millennia or two of fighting evil; the dream of immortality has become her cross to bear. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Booker, who was killed fighting for Napoleon, as a melancholy loner spinning through history. And Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli are Joe and Nicky, a swarthy duo who died while dueling in the Crusades and have been lovers through the centuries. That’s part of the film’s rousingly inclusive approach to the action genre.
The other part is the casting of KiKi Layne as Nile, a Marine who gets her throat slashed by a Taliban leader during the war in Afghanistan. One day later, she’s all better, marking her as the first new member of the I-Team since 1812. Layne’s performance is the most resonant in the film. She plays Nile as a surly, desperate, human-sized outsider who’s distinctly unenthused about joining her new warrior colleagues in a life that never ends. She’s so not with the program, and that gives the moment she agrees to get with it a charge of actual drama.
“The Old Guard” is at once a conventional action thriller; an origin story that’s trying, in its utilitarian Netflix way, to launch a badass franchise; and an “elegiac” late episode of that same franchise. It’s a genre movie that, if anything, takes its characters a lot more seriously than the audience does. Floating through the years with hidden identities, Andy and her team are presented to us as stealth saviors who really, really care. Andy, explaining the game of immortality to Nile, says things like, “It’s not what time steals. It’s what it leaves behind.” (A line like that can leave the pulse of a movie behind.)
The way “The Old Guard” works, immortality lasts until it doesn’t. The film has a passing-the-baton-to-a-representative-of-the-new-world plot that echoes “Terminator: Dark Fate” and “Logan.” The villain, Merrick, runs a pharmaceutical corporation and is played by Harry Melling (from the “Harry Potter” films) as if he were the evil grandson of Malcolm McLaren. His plan is to kidnap our heroes and learn the secrets of immortality by mining their flesh for its genetic secrets. Merrick’s middleman, Copley, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who never fails to surprise. Here, he goes from villain to soul-haunted collaborator to the film’s equivalent of a certain character with an eyepatch in a way that’s entirely convincing, even as he barely moves a facial muscle. Will “The Old Guard” be successful enough to spawn a sequel? If it is, the challenge going forward will be to make the prospect of immortality seem like something more than a rerun.