This month’s unexpectedly-good-blockbuster is The Old Guard, a fresh take on an action movie available on Netflix. Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne star in this action-packed piece about undying warriors. When I caught it was #2 in the US, had already reached 72 million households, and was apparently a 98% match for my husband and me.
The trailer makes it seem dry and funny. It is. Charlize Theron’s character, Andy, is a strong, beautiful, and utterly exhausted badass, tired from an endlessly long life of really trying to help people but only seeing the world grow worse and worse despite her best efforts.
The story resounds with this feeling: begrudging-hero-resigned-to-their-fate. The way Theron pulls it off is poignant, vaguely tragic, and utterly compelling. The movie’s depiction of war, death, and violence are similarly honest, gritty, and often ugly. There are whole sequences where the music drops out and the characters proceed to main and/or kill dozens of people with practised expressionless.
There is a lot of violence in the film, all of which feels necessary. But there’s also a sense of tension and discomfort surrounding the violence rather than hyped-up glorification. It almost reminded me of a biographic war drama (a la Jarheads of Three Kings), rather than a superhero action film.
Still, at its core, this is a superhero story. The powers are CG-ed flawlessly and are central to the story. The fantastic elements aren’t just necessary to the backdrop; they affect every character’s decision too. I was also really refreshed by the larger explanation behind their powers; it was true to life and offered without pretence.
The central evil, as it turns out, is our human ability to selfishly re-characterize and bullshit-ify almost any malfeasance. While observing our heroes in pain, the villain asks his top lackey, “What do you see?” “A Nobel prize,” she replies. He nods. “And a fair bit of money too,” he agrees.
Ultimately the moral of the story lies in the Exponential Good of a single human hell-bent on helping others. There is no singular and pivotal “Save-All-Of-Mankind” moment. Death lasers aren’t deflected from the moon. New York and London aren’t saved from aliens. A person is rescued by a stranger. A life is left intact. The ripples of the hero’s selflessness and bravery flow out from these moments in a million profound and unpredictable ways. The “world” isn’t saved. People are. Afterwards, those people do likewise.
Weirdly enough, this super-powered action movie may be exactly the grounded and uplifting story the world needs.