Kiki Layne, the young actor at the centre of The Old Guard, is just astonishing. Her performance is one of such subtle power, controlled passion and honest humanity that it stays with you long long after the credits have rolled and still carries a vivid emotional response every time you think of it. It is genuinely beautiful.
I’m not talking about what she does in The Old Guard though, I’m referring to her work on Barry Jenkin’s much overlooked If Beale Street Could Talk which came out last year. I have to say, while I am thrilled to see her getting more high profile parts, I was surprised to see her turn up in this new Netflix action film. Surprised and perhaps a little nervous, not because I thought it was beneath her but because I wasn’t sure it that all the explosions and gun fights would leave room for her to excel in a way I had seen her do before.
Do you know what though? Kiki Layne is superb in this too. She’s not as good as she is in Jenkin’s film about young love and racial prejudice in 70s New York, of course she’s not, but actually, even in this film about unkillable super soldiers her wonderful humanity still shines through. Rather than this being a step back, or at least a step in a different direction, it only cements her as a real talent. Kiki Layne could, and should, become a big star. Catch her here first. No wait, catch her in If Beale Street Could Talk first, then come back and watch her in this.
She’s not the star of this movie though; this is another showcase for the close quarter combat stylings of Charlize Theron. Theron is undeniably one of contemporary American cinemas most successful female action stars but like many of the others to potentially boast this title, people like Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson, there has always been more to her than this. In fact these three women have seven Oscar nominations and two wins to their names which does seem to set them aside from the men. Who are their male counterparts? Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves and Dwayne Johnson? They’ve got no Oscars and their three noms are all Tom’s. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Layne in this after all.
The Old Guard is a big movie, even with Netflix behind it I’d have expected to see this in cinemas in any other year. As well as Theron and Layne it features Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthias Schoenaerts, who have also done their share of action and Oscar films and are both actors I admire, and it tells the story of a group of ancient immortal mercenaries being hunted for the secret to their mystical healing powers. There are fun battle scenes across a range of settings, geographical and historical, and compelling characterisation and mythology. It isn’t perfect by any stretch; it has some clumsy exposition, a centuries old couple with an apparently incomparable love but absolutely no chemistry and Dudley Dursley is miscast as the big villain, but I liked it.
Part of the reason I rate this film, aside from Kiki Layne, is due to how diverse it is. As well as having a formidable woman as the great leader of these legendary fighters it also has a number of central players who are black and three of the heroes who are gay. All of this is also done as it should be, completely incidentally. None of this is about being a woman, being black or being gay, it just has people who happened to be those things. I wish this wasn’t something to be celebrated but it definitely still is and films like this move us toward a time when it won’t be. The movie also has a lot of people behind the scenes who tick these boxes too, including director Gina Prince Bythewood, cinematographer Tami Reiker and editor Terilyn A. Shropshire. In fact 85% of the crew on this film are women.
So there you are, how many reasons to watch this film do you need? One more maybe; it’s not too heavy and it offers a couple of hours of fun escapism which might be just what you need right now.