Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Writer: Greg Rucka
Cinematography: Tami Reiker, Barry Ackroyd
Editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling
Producer: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A.J. Dix, Marc Evans
Streaming Platform: Netflix
After orchestrating a Kalinga-like carnage, when Andy (Charlize Theron) and her posse of immortals including Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) are on a rattling train across the desert, the camera pans quickly and notices that Nicky and Joe are muzzled in each other’s arms. It’s a tender second that gets captioned much later in the film when Joe ends his monologue of love-beyond-labels with, “I love this man beyond measure and reason… He’s not my boyfriend.” These are unusual, and thus unexpected moments in a story dedicated to violence as a coping mechanism. But here is a film (based on the namesake comic by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez) that attempts poetry even as blood spills. And while sometimes the poetry sticks up, like in the extensive length of Joe’s monologue, it otherwise feels at ease in this story.
Merrick (Harry Melling) is a Jesse Eisenberg-like villain with bluer, wider eyes, who wants to capture these immortals, and figure out what it is in their DNA that allows for life to keep unspooling for centuries. He’s the youngest CEO in big-pharma, and so has both the recklessness of youth and the ruthlessness of big-pharma. His frame, unlike his ambitions, is quite small. The immortals realize that there might be a new entrant into the posse, and so Andy goes to Afghanistan where she retrieves Nile (KiKi Layne) from her Marine life. Nile has no idea why her fatal wounds heal with no trace of strain, and while she’s listening to Frank Ocean, Andy airdrops and whisks her away.
Joe and Nicky met when they were fighting on the opposite sides of the Crusades. Booker lived and fought through the Napoleonic Wars. Andy is reluctant to speak of her age, but her flashbacks reveal hunter-gatherers. (They also reveal Quynh, another immortal, her lover, now buried inside a cage under the sea since the Witch-Hunts, alive, alone, seemingly forever.) The fact that each of their origin stories deal with a moment of violence shows how bursts of blood-lust become landmarks. We study the 20th Century through its wars and genocides, the 19th Century through its revolts and civil wars, 18th Century through its bloody revolutions, so on and so forth. I wondered, a millennium from now, if Nile would have to introduce her age, what will she use as the landmark? Afghanistan, perhaps.
Nile is flummoxed but Andy answers all her questions with almost certain ambiguity. (Like in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights merely being told “I see you” is sometimes enough to snap out of your tragedy. Andy sees Nile.) This is why the film worked so well- it does not attempt to give answers, but merely present immortality as this random condition that can be taken away with as much randomness. The Kalinga-simile I started with hit me very early on in the film when we see Andy walking towards the light right after we see bloodbath. The film is a meditation on the futility of life, and it uses the most extreme possibility of life -immortality- to show and thus deliver this sermon. Is this Buddhist philosophy cloaked in blood? (There’s a dose of nihilism too as Andy muses, “None of it means anything anyways.”) Perhaps. But unlike religion, it doesn’t attempt to provide neat solutions to the arbitrary nature of living. Very early on Andy speaks of how she renounced god by becoming god. But even in her godliness, she is aware that one day, the pedestal she is on will slip, and her wounds won’t heal but will rot, and she won’t know why.
There are some extraordinary action set pieces, one in a plane with drugs, and the final one in the big-pharma building with shell casings clattering (even the building’s architecture is abrasive, every time the camera pans past the exterior, the pointed architecture hurts), where the camera swerves and swipes at eye-level. But in between the violence and the musings, a bit of tiredness sets in. Some exchanges feel like monologues made into conversations, and the silence sags as a heavy weight, for this isn’t a “tense” action film. It has the genre trappings where the characters trampoline from one continent to another with ease, from Sudan to Afghanistan to Paris to London, and so this isn’t exactly a “logical” action film either. Like a Bond film without the oomph, but also without that cotton-weight consequence.