There are certain basic things to expect in a special-ops team. Expertise with firearms? Check. Familiarity with explosives? Check. Martial-arts training? Check. Physical toughness, ingenuity, deadpan self-mockery? Check, even if that last one only applies in a movie, which is what “The Old Guard” is. It starts streaming on Netflix July 10.
You want something really special, though, try immortality. That’s even more impressive than having Charlize Theron for a leader. When they say old guard, they mean really, really old.
Immortality isn’t useful just for globe-hopping mercenaries (“The Old Guard” is variously set in Morocco, South Sudan, Afghanistan, France, and England). It also would be of considerable interest if you own a pharmaceutical company. As played by Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley, in the “Harry Potter” movies), said owner is equal parts Dr. Demento and Martin Shkreli (remember him?), the hedge-fund guy who tried to send drug prices through the roof. If a company could figure out what makes immortality tick, bye-bye roof.
Immortality isn’t just useful — and, for big pharma, fungible — it’s also a bit . . . mundane? Theron and her three team members (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli) still need to eat, drink, sleep. They also need new blood, so to speak. Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) is affecting as an ex-Marine who’s recruited to join up. Maybe the performance is affecting because she’s the one person in the movie who understands just how nutty the premise is. Conversely, Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) manages to keep a straight face throughout, playing an ex-CIA agent.
As directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “The Old Guard” is assured and textureless: competence doing the work of inspiration. The movie is like an extended trailer for itself. Greg Rucka did the wooden script, adapted from his and Leandro Fernández’s comic book. As expected, fights and shoot-outs clock in with the regularity (and choreographing) of dance numbers in a musical. But there’s also some chin-pulling about death and duty and the price immortality exacts. “Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting,” Schoenaerts says. He gets off a much better line when Layne asks “So are you good guys or bad guys?” “It depends on the century.”
It may have reached the point in Theron’s career that when she files her taxes she lists as occupation “action figure” instead of “actress.” When Schoenaerts says, “That woman has more ways to kill than entire armies will ever learn,” is he referring to Theron or her character? Theron stole “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) and was as good as the movie let her be in “Atomic Blonde” (2017). It’s just that these roles are so straightforward emotionally she could play them in someone else’s sleep. Sometimes, though, the athletic and actorly intersect. When Theron delivers a line like “You know, there was a time when I was worshiped as a god” the muscular control involved in keeping a straight face is Olympic caliber.
THE OLD GUARD
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Written by Greg Rucka; based on the comic book by him and Leandro Fernández. Starring Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling. Streaming on Netflix, starting July 10. 124 minutes. R (graphic violence, language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.