Would The Old Guard have begun with the same sequence if it had been a theatrical release? The shots of four dead characters, one of them Charlize Theron who plays Annie and voices the narration over which these shots are arranged, before cutting to black. The title appears, followed by an introductory scene to the previously dead characters, leading to an action sequence that takes us to the opening shots and the movie moves forward. This set-up does not work. The first few shots of the dead characters exist only because it is a Netflix movie.
The challenge of a streaming service is a small button on the screen that reads ‘Pause’. The viewer will press it the moment s/he is bored. To stop viewers from doing that, these streaming services must create content that will hook audiences into giving up the control, forget their power and invest in the content. Thus, we come to the shots I mentioned earlier. They act as a hook. Unfortunately, they make a poor one. The voice-over exists only for two lines and vanishes. If it isn’t important except as a gimmick, why have it? These shots appear twice, in hopes that the second time will arouse a feeling of excitement. This would’ve happened even if we watched them only once in a linear narrative. We move on to introductions of the four dead characters. Their dialogues, intended to establish relationships and identities, are flimsy and artificial. But, this scene does introduce the characters well.
Moving on, there is a fight scene which, like so many others, is a fine example of a poorly crafted action sequence. We never know where the characters stand, who and how exactly they are fighting and what the consequences are of their blows. We can only say one thing for sure: someone fought. Having said that, there is a tiny glimmer of excitement when these four team up to kill their opponents, albeit only for a moment; following sequences improve on this. Finally, there is a plot twist. So much happens in just the first 10 odd minutes of The Old Guard. Why? So that we won’t get bored and stop watching the movie. In a theatre, we don’t have an option but to see the story unfold gradually. On Netflix, we have the power to stop it. If you don’t, then the real fun of The Old Guard will begin.
This is where the real story starts: a story of a human becoming a hero. Yes, it is familiar but that has never been the problem. It is the way it unfolds that matters. And here, the writer creates a character whom we understand because fortunately, the movie does not play like its set-up. Once our hero, an African-American soldier, gets into the picture, the movie lets the story breathe and allows the characters to take over. They, instead of an algorithm, start charting the narrative. The action sequences are punctuated by character enriching scenes that deepen the movie’s universe, provide plot background and develop character arcs. In these scenes, the movie shines because of the writing and performances. Kiki Lane, who plays the hero, wonderfully portrays the doubt and confusion of her character, Nile Freeman. Her performance never bursts out. It remains intact in the shadows until her time comes.
Theron and rest of the cast hold their ground, adding layers to the story and making it their own. The action sequences, too, improve from the very first, becoming richer and layered; not so much as I had hoped but entertaining nevertheless. It seemed to me that the movie is caught between two versions of itself: one that constantly has to bear in mind that viewers will leave, and the other that basks in the light of people’s submission to itself. A movie that is streamed and a movie that is theatrical. We don’t know whether the latter would’ve been different to the former. My guess is, it will be. Will it be better? I think so. Could they not have made the same movie for Netflix? It is a risk that Netflix won’t take for it does not help their model which relies on people being glued to the screen. Patience is something that goes against it. Thus, The Old Guard becomes an entertaining movie with a promise of a better one where its distribution platform won’t play that big a role.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.