Embracing the embrace

Sure, 'The Old Guard' is an action picture. It's also a movie about giving great hugs.

From left: Kiki Layne, Luca Marinelli, Charlize Theron, and Marwan Kenzari in "The Old Guard."
From left: Kiki Layne, Luca Marinelli, Charlize Theron, and Marwan Kenzari in "The Old Guard."© 2020 Netflix Inc.

The first one starts about four minutes into the film.

Charlize Theron — who stars as immortal mercenary Andy in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Netflix action film, “The Old Guard” — sees an old friend, Nicky, played by Luca Marinelli, and hugs him.

Really hugs him.

The hug between the two friends lasts about four seconds. Count that out. One … two … three … four. Andy wraps one arm around Nicky’s waist and the other around his neck. When she finally lets go, and Marinelli’s strong forearms loosen their loving grip, Theron rubs the back of his neck, right at his hairline, and puts her hand on his shoulder.


Then comes another hug, this time between Andy and Joe, Nicky’s partner, played by Marwan Kenzari. This hug is more playful. Theron leans in for a basic it’s-been-a-while back pat, but Kenzari is so excited to see her that he lifts her and growls. She laughs.

“The Old Guard” has a lot of excellent kicking, punching, running, and comic-book cliffhangers, but it’s also a film with beautiful embraces. It celebrates platonic hugs between chosen family.

Right now, for obvious reasons, that’s a beautiful thing to see.

Charlize Theron (left) and Kiki Layne in "The Old Guard."
Charlize Theron (left) and Kiki Layne in "The Old Guard."Aimee Spinks/Netflix via AP

A confession: I am not a good hugger, nor do I like being hugged. In normal times, it’s a small-yet-uncomfortable problem in a culture where people hug to say hello and goodbye. My friends make jokes when they leave my company … at least they used to, back when we could keep each other’s company without a care. They’d say, “Don’t worry, I won’t hug you,” and then throw their hands up in confusion, frustrated that they don’t know any other way to end a conversation and leave a room. One of my friends likes to tell me, “I’m virtually hugging you,” and then she tips an imaginary hat, and I respond with a shrug.


It’s not that I dislike hugs; they’re just not my instinct. When I was a kid, I had very bad allergies, so I knew that an embrace might mean being exposed to the hair of someone else’s cat. Or perfume. A hug from a well-meaning person could ruin an entire day. Sending love from many feet away has long been my normal.

But I love seeing hugs, and I adore them in film, particularly when they are performed well by actors playing friends. Onscreen hugging can be instructive — because every now and then, I do want to try.

I hugged my friend James many months ago. I wanted to see how it felt. He said something like, “No, that’s not it.” From my memory, he called it “limp” and we both laughed.

The only good hugs I’ve experienced (not counting romantic partners; there’s more time to practice with them) have been from two friends who have similar hugging styles. Both of them go in confident. They embrace me — or more like envelop me — and I don’t have to do any work. It’s like I’m fitting into a puzzle. They also smell nice.

When one friend in particular, Wesley, hugs me (and it has been too long), I find myself 100 percent relaxed.

Now I realize it’s because Wesley hugs a little like Charlize Theron. Let all hugs be Charlize-Theron-as-Andy-in-”The Old Guard” hugs.

There are many other movies better known for big embraces. I like to watch and glean anything I can from them.


Robin Williams (left) and Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting."
Robin Williams (left) and Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting."GEORGE KRAYCHYK

Boston calls one classic its own. Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” (1997) has an epic, beautiful hug between Matt Damon and Robin Williams. It’s cathartic and it makes me cry more than 20 years later.

But I imagine that the “Good Will Hunting” hug is a one-shot deal. It’s an embrace given and received at a character’s breaking point — a rare moment. It’s not accepted easily, nor do I assume it makes Will Hunting the kind of guy who hugs his friends without thought or concern.

One recent onscreen hug that comes close to the perfection — for me, at least — is in Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” (2019), when Constance Wu’s character finds Jennifer Lopez’s after a long gap in their friendship. Wu spots Lopez in the strip club where they’ve both worked, and without a care about who might be watching, Wu runs and falls into Lopez’s arms. There’s also a hug toward the end of that movie between the two actresses that seems to last forever, in a good way.

I think a lot about the Avengers as huggers. Those Marvel superhero characters, like the globe-trotting immortals in “The Old Guard,” are all prone to love, hope, and cry. They are chosen family at its best. I don’t know that I’d say Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans’s hugs as Bucky Barnes and Captain America are platonic (at least not in my interpretation of the text), but they are comfortable. Intimate. Yet they never last long enough for me.


Sometimes with the Avengers hugs are played for laughs. There’s that cute and awkward scene where Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, a young Spider-Man, thinks Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark is hugging him, when he’s actually trying to reach around him to open a car door. In a later movie, the two do hug, but by then they’re like father and son. That kind of hug is different.

The thing that hits me about “The Old Guard”hugs is that there are no apologies, no moments that imply “we’ll hug this one time because it’s a literal disaster, but then we’ll never talk about it again.” The movie is about strong immortal fighters who’ve lived for centuries. Sometimes they get up, riddled with bullet holes. But in Prince-Bythewood’s interpretation of Greg Rucka’s comics and screenplay, the characters have also evolved enough to understand the value of friendship and an embrace. Touching is one of their important love languages. They don’t get weird about it.

I think about the 1988 Italian film “Cinema Paradiso” a lot, about the supercut of love scenes, a highlight of the film (go watch it if you haven’t seen it). My cinematic supercut of choice would be onscreen moments where friends embrace without a care. I’d want many of those moments to involve straight men embracing their women friends, without the hint of more. More superheroes like Holland’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who is never afraid to lean in, literally. Characters giving the kinds of hugs that loved ones want to give each other right now but can’t. Even non-huggers like me miss being in the presence of physical affection.


The best hug in “The Old Guard” comes at the end of the movie. I won’t give anything away for those who haven’t seen it, but Theron hugs another one of her immortal friends, one she won’t be able to see for a very long time. The hug is epic. There are tears. Prince-Bythewood lets it go on for close to 10 full seconds. One person has a hand on the back of the other’s head, holding it with great care. Eyes are closed. Shoulders are squeezed. Hair is stroked.

It’s the template for what the best hugs will look like in a safer future, which I hope comes to us all offscreen — and soon.

Meredith Goldstein writes the advice column Love Letters and can be reached for virtual hugs at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.