Ever since she stole Mad Max: Fury Road from its title character, I’ve been waiting for Charlize Theron to go all in on a second career as an action hero. Apart from her (admittedly thrilling) appearance in Atomic Blonde three years ago, her calling as the screen’s preeminent female ass-kicker never really got off the ground. Even the Fast & Furious franchise screwed up Charlize, casting her in The Fate of the Furious as a grumpy hacker who spends the entire movie looking at computer screens.

At last, Charlize the action star fully emerges in The Old Guard, a muscular thriller that would have been one of this summer’s cinematic highlights even if theaters around the world were still open. Theron’s character, Andy, recalls the best parts of her performance as Furiosa, another deadly soldier who bears the emotional scars of years of conflict. Where so many male action heroes wear their brutality with dispassionate pride, Theron emphasizes the psychological cost that must be paid by great warriors over the course of a lifetime — or, in the case of The Old Guard, multiple lifetimes.

That’s because this film, based on a comic book by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández, is about a group of immortals who’ve spent centuries covertly protecting people in need. Andy and her brood of deathless champions possess the ability to recover from seemingly any injury, or even death, in a matter of seconds. This, combined with fighting skills honed through decades of combat (plus a taste for edged weapons) make them a little like an X-Men team where everyone is Wolverine.

Andy claims not to remember what her mother looked like, or even how old she truly is. Brief flashbacks reveal that however long she’s been doing this, it’s been a while. And she clearly remembers the pain of losing loved ones, particularly a fellow immortal whose torture many years prior informs much of Andy’s choices in the present day.

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That’s when Andy and the rest of her team of unkillable mercenaries — Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) — discover the “birth” of another unique individual like themselves, a U.S. Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne). While Andy tracks down Nile and convince her to join her squad, the rest of the group tries to stay out of the hands of a sniveling pharma executive (Harry Melling, giving extremely good snivel) who wants to unlock the secrets of their unique genetic code at any cost.

There’s a lot of typical superhero stuff in that plot description, including the new member of an established group who becomes our entryway into this strange world, and the evil corporation that wants to treat metahumans like lab rats, ethics be damned. The atypical stuff in The Old Guard all comes from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who brings a level of thoughtfulness and nuance to material that’s usually just an excuse for onscreen bloodshed.

So often a movie like this ignores the mechanics of heroes’ powers and basks in routine power fantasies; The Old Guard actually considers the dark side of immortality. Recovering from any injury means you could theoretically be trapped in an endless loop of gruesome painful deaths, and even under the best of circumstances, Andy and her colleagues are doomed to live for eternity while everyone around them gets old and dies. The way Prince-Bythewood approaches both of these ideas recalls her last movie, the perceptive Beyond the Lights, which viewed pop-music stardom with a similarly skeptical eye.

Prince-Bythewood is clearly well-versed in the tropes of action spectacles, and she delights in poking fun at their macho cliches. In one very entertaining scene, a bunch of soldiers try to insult Joe and Nicky with a homophobic putdown familiar from countless thrillers of this kind — “What is he? Your boyfriend?” — which inspires Joe to launch into an epic ode to his lover, whose place in his heart goes way beyond being a simple boyfriend. Then the two men kiss — and beat the crap out of everyone else in the room.

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For several years in the mid-2010s, Prince-Bythewood was supposed to direct a Spider-Man spinoff called Silver & Black about a pair of female superheroes. Sony’s loss was Netflix’s gain. Theron and her haunted eyes somehow turns kicking enormous amounts of ass into the most soulful activity on Earth. It’s enough to make you wish she actually was immortal, and could keep starring in these movies forever.

Additional Thoughts:

-The casting alone — which is dominated by women and people of color — makes The Old Guard unique. When was the last time the best fight scene in an action movie belonged to two women beating the crap out of each other?

-No spoilers, but The Old Guard might have the best cliffhanger of any comic-book movie since Samuel L. Jackson stepped out of the shadows of Tony Stark’s home back in Iron Man.

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