The Old Guard
2020 | dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood | 125 m
The Old Guard is emblematic of all of the worst tendencies of Netflix original content. It's not that it's complete and utter garbage. At least if it were terrible, it would evoke some kind of emotional response. I would rather a movie made me either love it or hate it. But when a movie forces me into the emotional purgatory of apathy, that's something I refuse to forgive. Like the vast majority of Netflix original movies and TV shows I've seen, The Old Guard is neither great nor terrible, but instead aggressively mediocre and eminently forgettable. Sorry, what was I talking about again?
Netflix's biggest enemy seems to have been its overnight success as the giant of a media streaming industry that they essentially created. At first, their challenge was how to secure all the licencing and rights to hundreds of thousands of movies. To their credit, they never rested entirely on their laurels, and adapted their business model proactively in anticipation of market trends. Knowing that they couldn't keep the entire pie to themselves forever, especially considering how lucrative that pie was, Netflix began the shift from content distributor to content creator. They suspected, quite rightly, that when other studios and companies saw how successful their business model was, that they would, of course, try to carve up that market like a Christmas turkey. (Full disclosure: I'm not sure if this content just lends itself well to food metaphors or if I happen to be working on this article right before supper.) That would, in turn, mean that a whole lot of content that Netflix previously had access to would, by necessity, be diverted to other streaming services, as a huge part of the value proposition for companies in that space is the exclusivity of their content. Especially for those who saw an increasingly overcrowded market and said to themselves "I want in!", there would be no incentive for customers to either leave Netflix or supplement Netflix's service with their own if all of their content was shared.
What does all of this have to do with the quality (or in most cases, lack thereof) of The Old Guard and most of the original content that Netflix is now producing? In a word, everything. Once Netflix knew that their milkshake would bring all the boys to the yard for only so long, they were faced with a challenge more fundamental than anybody working there may have realized at first. HBO, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, The Criterion Channel, and the other competitors were one thing, but the problem became readily apparent as soon as Disney broke into the market with their Disney Plus streaming service. Here was a behemoth that had the resources and the will to do whatever it took (including eating huge losses in the short term) to dominate as much of the landscape it saw. And its vision stretched far indeed. Though Netflix had long before pondered the possibility, the true scope of their predicament was clear: they had to consider not just losing rights to part of their library, but had to prepare for the worst case scenario that would see them lose the rights to everything.
When considered from that perspective, it's no wonder Netflix went full-tilt into producing their own content. It's not just that they have to compete with other studios and companies releasing films today. It's that they have to theoretically compete with the entire library of movies and TV shows ever created. That means that Netflix had to account for competing against more than a century's worth of cinematic and television content should their situation reach Titanic (or Battlefield Earth) levels of disaster. That meant developing a library of hundreds and thousands of movies and shows that they, alone, had the rights to and could never be pulled from their grasp, cold dead fingers or otherwise.
It's not hard to see where this was all headed. The need for proprietary content meant that the good folks over at Netflix were caught up in that age-old tension between quality and quantity. And while they did need some quality to whet their audience's appetites, they were invariably pulled towards the need for quantity, so that when their algorithms provided "helpful" suggestions as to what to watch on any particular evening, a growing proportion of those recommendations would be Netflix's own original content (easily discernable now with the trademark bright, red "N" on the movie or TV icon on Netflix's user interface). And starting back in the halcyon days of 2012 with the development and streaming of Lilyhammer, Netflix began to build a library of content that they could truly call their own.
Which brings us back to The Old Guard.
At first glance, it seems to have all of the ingredients required to create a truly unique and inspiring vision. It's based on a critically acclaimed series of comics. It's got a gravy-boat-load of talent, both in front of and behind the camera. It's got an incredibly engaging concept about a group of immortal mercenaries with checkered pasts trying to make the world a better place and face down their own, personal demons. It's got a healthy budget that rivals that of other major blockbuster superhero movies from more established studios. All signs pointed to The Old Guard being not just a successful action film, but one with Something to Say.
And despite what seems like a perfect recipe, The Old Guard wound up half-baked.
Something about the movie just made it feel so generic and bland. There are probably a lot of factors at play, but watching The Old Guard, it feels like the two key ingredients missing were those missing from most Netflix original content: time and passion. Not once did I get a sense of urgency, like this was a story that a) needed to be told by the filmmakers and b) couldn't have been told by anybody else. I'm not saying that Charlize Theron and the rest of the cast didn't do a good job, or that director Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn't know what she's doing behind the camera, or that Greg Rucka who adapted the screenplay from his own comics doesn't understand the source material. These are all experienced professionals doing their best to tell a compelling story.
No, the blandness of the whole affair speaks to something more systemic. As a random audience member with no insider information, I have no idea how long the script-writing and pre-production of the movie took; all I can say is that it feels to me like it wasn't long enough. The Old Guard seems to suffer from a lot of the "show don't tell" issues that would be massaged out during multiple revisions over a period of time. There were a lot of really engaging philosophical, emotional, and existential questions related to immortality that felt like they were glossed over in the final version that we got, but that a few more passes through the script might have been able to tease out and explore in a bit more depth. But there's nothing we learn about the main characters that doesn't come from exposition and nothing more probing about the haunting toll that immortality takes on a person's psyche and soul than the people you love grow old and then die and you have to live with that loss. There are slight variations on this theme, like when one of the immortals, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), explains the pain of watching his family die while he stayed young, and they begged him for the secret to his immortality, and he ended up having to deal with both his grief and their resentment by being unable to comply. It's an interesting concept, but lacks any weight, and is one of many dots that is never connected to any others in the movie. I'm sorry, but your immortality led to you becoming *checks notes* a band of superpowered, unstoppable mercenaries. It's really hard to listen to people whine for two hours about how terrible their lives are because of their immortality while simultaneously revelling in that same immortality every chance they get.
The only real truly terrifying drawback to immortality that's explored in the movie is the possibility of getting stuck in a situation in which you die and are resurrected in such a way that you die almost instantly again, over and over, for hundreds of years. Quynh (Veronica Ngo), a friend of the leader of the band of immortals, Andy (Charlize Theron), is revealed to have been tried as a witch, imprisoned in an iron maiden, and then dumped overboard from a ship into the middle of the ocean, where she drowns, revives, and drowns constantly, with no hope of escape. The idea of eternal torment and the potential psychological damage that might take are tantalizing questions begging to be explored. Which, of course, they never are, in favour of more fighting and explosions. Quynh, one of the most interesting characters, is relegated to a flashback and a mid-credits stinger setting up the inevitable sequel where she will likely serve as an ass-kicking villain with no true exploration of the terrible trauma she endured.
Many components of The Old Guard feel almost clinical, like a product that was put together based on a committee who had compiled data on what would be most marketable to the most number of people. There was no real heart or thematic or narrative tissue to hold things together. It felt like a lot of modern action movies, more like a series of scenes than an interconnected story. Everything is so shiny and glossy and clean, from the sets to the camerawork, that nothing feels like it has any weight. And it's not like Charlize Theron isn't known for her action chops. Contrast her fight with Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult in Mad Max: Fury Road to any of her fight scenes in The Old Guard, and you can see the difference immediately. All of the action in The Old Guard lacks a sense of weight or force; in every fight scene, it feels like Theron and the others are pushing, but the world they inhabit isn't pushing back. Even compared to Extraction, another milquetoast Netflix offering from 2020, the action falls flat. At least in Extraction, the audience could feel the physical impact of every punch and gunshot. It was a world that felt like Newton's Three Laws were still in effect, though bent to accommodate the narrative, as they often are. The Old Guard is perfectly mediocre in every way, lacking any emotional or physical weight.
Like most Netflix originals, passion had nothing to do with this project. It felt less like a movie and more like a calculated business decision. One could almost envision an algorithm presenting a list of possible films to the executives at Netflix much the same way the software tries to shovel content down our throats, whether it actually matches our preferences or not. Superhero Action Based on an Indie Comic Series. This is surely a winning category based on human behavioural statistics in 2020. The Old Guard seems to be the product of a line of completely backwards thinking. It's like Netflix saw a category they needed filled, and just started checking boxes off a list.
This is the heart of the problem.
I mentioned early that there was something systemic at play here, and as someone who has worked at several different companies, the symptoms are painfully clear to me. I've seen it time and again. As much as we'd like to believe the opposite, there is no amount of passion, no level of excitement or dedication that finely malfunctioning corporate machinery can't or won't stamp out given the opportunity. Independent thought is the natural enemy of corporations, and they are fundamentally programmed to eradicate such a thing any time it comes across it. There's a reason why the best content to come out of Netflix - movies like The Irishman, Uncut Gems, and Da 5 Bloods - are so successful. These are films that are driven by people who have both the vision and their own machinery in place to counter the corporate behemoths. The only people capable of producing anything of worthwhile within the crushing corporate apparatus at the heart of a company like Netflix are auteurs with visions and voices so clear and precise that they refuse to be drowned out by the noise of the machine. So what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In the corporate world, the answer is easy: if you can't convert or acquire, you can always exploit.
People like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee are cinematic institutions unto themselves, and carry the clout of success - like all corporations, Netflix abhors independent thought, but it also has a higher directive, and that is to ignore all other directives in the pursuit of profit. It may not be immediate gain, but Netflix's struggle for legitimacy, the driving force for funding projects for people like Scorsese and Lee, is ultimately a quest to increase their visibility and prestige in the industry and, ultimately, their profitability. It's a long game to be sure, but it's one that pays dividends. Not necessarily for auteurs like Scorsese or Lee. The whole reason that The Irishman wound up on Netflix is that none of the other major studios would fund Martin Scorsese's passion project, primarily the incredible investment in using CGI to de-age its main cast. Think about that. Martin Scorsese, one of the most prolific filmmakers of this - or any - generation, had to go door to door, hat in hand, to get funding for his movie. It came down to a simple calculation; the other studios had already reached their budget caps for funding their so-called "award-season" movies, Netflix is desperate to get noticed at the Oscars, and a Scorsese movie is a good way to get noticed. It would be funny if it weren't so sad how the collective psyche of the corporate brain of any company of a certain size functions on a level even more primordial than your average batch of teenagers, with a commensurate level of drama.
The Old Guard, on the other hand, is simply more filler for the hot dog. Netflix is the prime example of the homogenization of film, where movies start to look and feel very much like every other movie out there, and I'm not talking simply about popular trends in filmmaking or storytelling. It's a matter of emphasizing the "business" portion of show business, and treating movies simply as another product to sell. Striking a balance between uniformity of input and consistency in output is the cornerstone of industrial efficiency. And the sad truth is, mediocrity sells. Especially in the face of a possible worse alternative or no alternative at all. From a corporate perspective, if you hit or exceed your target return on investment, then making a modest return on an unremarkable product on a large enough scale ends up being more profitable than trying to go all in on a lot fewer truly exceptional endeavours.
You know what? I kind of get it. The temptation is there because it's easy; it's the path of least resistance, and like everything else in the universe, human beings are drawn towards this force nearly as surely as other forces like gravity. For Netflix, having a set formula, a sort of cinematic Mad Libs, where filmmakers fill in the blanks with specific characters and settings, and the rest is already in place, it no doubt makes the whole process easier, especially when you need to build a library, and fast. This corporate mindset is most telling to me in the endings of most content that Netflix produces, which tend to fall flatter than a ruined soufflé. A perfect example of this is Triple Frontier, an otherwise solid movie with an incredible talent pool both in front of and behind the camera. The movie had a great premise, with a bunch of former US soldiers deciding to rob the head of a major drug cartel in South America. Triple Frontier ended up being even more disappointing than The Old Guard, because it actually tricked its audience into thinking it was building to something, to make some kind of statement, engage in some kind of dialogue on any number of compelling topics: the actions of its protagonists and the blurring of lines of morality, the cost of the drug trade and cartels on average citizens, the corrupting power of greed, the complex ethical code of honourable thieves, or imbalances of power between Western nations and other less advantaged countries. Instead, it just ended up like "LOL, Nope, just a cool action movie, bro. How about a tease for a sequel that will likely never happen instead of any meaningful insight, character growth, or consequences."
But for a company like Netflix, of course the endings don't matter. The important thing is to hook enough people with a bright and shiny beginning, all of the compelling stuff that makes for great trailer content, and distill all of that audience curiosity down into some viewership stats that they can use to legitimize value for shareholders. This is pretty clear in how they determine viewership data on their content, which changed recently, and by a pretty wide margin. Netflix used to count a movie or TV episode "watched" if a viewer had watched at least 70% of it. Now, the metric for what counts as watched is if someone manages to sit through the first two minutes. The endings never mattered to Netflix, just like they don't matter to any large corporation, because if the goal is always to increase profit, then the goal is, by definition, always a moving one. That corporate philosophy ultimately spreads down into the content itself, because of course it does. The head and the body aren't separate entities, and where one leads, the other must, inevitable, follow.
Listen, I'm not pointing out anything that hasn't already been pointed out a thousand times before, but it bears repeating, and I'll lend my voice to the multitudes for what it's worth (hint: I'm not trading in my Toyota for a Lexus any time soon). In the grand scheme of things, a studio or production companies putting out a bunch of mediocre movies and TV shows isn't that big of a deal, I guess. But in the context of being another symptom of the further erosion and commodification of culture to further bolster corporate influence and profits, it does matter. I'm not saying that there's not room for a balance between artistic expression and a reasonable return on investment. People who are involved in creating content should be paid for their contributions. At the end of the day, everybody's got to eat. All I'm saying is that access to truly original, engaging, thought-provoking, and/or challenging content shouldn't be facing the constant risk of getting lost in a near-constant deluge of corporate mediocrity, and that this trend is indicative of larger social forces and struggles at play.
As an audience, and a society at large, we can have our cake and eat it too; we just have to find the right balance in the recipe between artistic expression and profit. As for Netflix and The Old Guard, the former is currently not the best ingredient for a healthy cinematic diet, and the latter never will be.