July 8, 2020 10:21 PM EDT

Because action-fantasies—particularly those produced under the Marvel umbrella—have become such huge money-makers, few filmmakers seem motivated to make better ones. These blockbusters seem designed to fill expectations rather than to surprise and delight. Their action sequences get faster and louder, but never smarter. Their pathos feels lab-created. Yet these movies make so much money that revitalizing them has come to seem hopeless.

Enter Gina Prince-Bythewood, a filmmaker who has never before made an action movie, to show the world how it’s done. Though the summer is young, The Old Guard is almost certainly the best action entertainment of the season. Starring Charlize Theron as an immortal, ancient warrior, and KiKi Layne as a newbie-immortal just coming to terms with her own powers, The Old Guard is based on a comic-book series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández. But don’t lump it in with the big-franchise comic-book movies: in its craftsmanship and soul, it has more in common with the 1990s films of action genius John Woo than with anything that’s been extruded through the franchise Play-Doh pumper in recent years. If an action movie can be elegant and thoughtful, this one is.

Theron’s Andromache, Andy for short, is the leader of a small gang of ageless mercenary warriors, but her years on the job—centuries, in fact—have taken a toll. Her closest cohort is Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts); a fellow loner, he’s the one who understands her best. But she also feels a deep, protective affection for the two others in their group, Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari), who also happen to be a longtime couple. (They met during the crusades, on opposite sides of the fight, and have been inseparable ever since.) Andy’s tight band specializes in heroic extractions, like rescuing groups of kidnapped girls in the desert. But when they’re betrayed by a seemingly earnest ex–CIA agent (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), her disillusionment intensifies.

Luckily, a young soldier who’s dragged into their fold, Nile (played with understated intensity by Layne, perhaps best known for If Beale Street Could Talk), jolts Andy out of her ennui. Nile is a lot of work: she’s reluctant to acknowledge her special powers—an immortal who’s wounded can generally heal in a matter of seconds—and she views Andy as the enemy. Early on, the two go at it in a hand-to-hand combat sequence that’s superlative in its choreography and visual clarity. When one throws a punch, you can easily follow the swing; a roundhouse kick reads like a brutal sonnet. Action is a language, and Prince-Bythewood—who has made three terrific films in other genres—already knows the vocabulary.

Some filmmakers work all the time, making movies even when you wish they wouldn’t. Prince-Bythewood is the other kind: in the years since her marvelous debut, the 2000 Love & Basketball, she has made only two features, The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Beyond the Lights (2014). Although she’s been busy working in television, the movies may need her more: she brings an intimate touch even to large-scale projects like this one. Though it features all manner of gunplay—plus the use of assorted antique weaponry—The Old Guard never feels assaultive.

It doesn’t hurt that Prince-Bythewood’s cast is tops. Theron’s lanky, boots-and-jeans grandeur suits the movie perfectly; she’s fully in tune with its willowy grace. If you think you’re not an action-movie or comic-book-movie person, this one could change your mind. The Old Guard feels fresh, even as it honors the best traditions of its genre. It’s the action movie we didn’t know we wanted. Old guard, meet vanguard.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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