So I watched Netflix’s The Old Guard the other day.
And before I say anything else I’d like to highlight that I actually think it was a good film, mostly great acting, cool action and some elements played really well.
But I couldn’t help but find that underneath the movie was a bit of a case study in poor writing, the story had a number of quite striking flaws which could be useful to explore to hone one’s own craft. So without further muck about SPOILERS ahead for The Old Guard and a summary of what kinda went wrong.
In the beginning of the film we’re introduced to “Andy”. Andy’s initial character development is that she has been “out” for over a year and her allies ask her to come along for another job. Andy reluctantly agrees and we find out she is jaded because she doesn’t think their work is making the world a better place.
As a start its not a bad conceit, we’re also introdued to Copley who quickly betrays the old guard in brutal fashion (luring them with a rescue mission which is fact leads them to an underground bunker where they are shot to death in order to video them ‘healing’) The inciting incident works because it plays into Andy’s jaded attitude, proving they are indeed not helping and in fact in danger of discovery and capture.
For Andy the plot almost continues as something that works – we find out that Copley was hired by a pharmacuetical CEO who wants to research the immortals. Despite the fact the CEO is the most ridiculous 2d villain I’ve seen for a while the idea still holds because it throws an unusual spanner at the plot because it presents a question of whether a group of immortals would do better fighting to make a better world or allowing science to take over.
Here’s where the problems are though: Firstly that central question isn’t posed to Andy. Really the villain could be anyone who wants to capture and mistreat them (and let’s face it there are any number of reasons that someone might want to do that to a group of immortal adversaries right). So for our main character there isn’t really any central question or decision, they don’t want to get captured and vivisected so they are going to fight…
The character that question is given to is Copley, in possibly the most clumsy turn around I’ve ever seen, Copley who is introduced as betraying the immortals, then immediately turns around and starts questioning the obviously psychopathic villain on whether they are doing this to help people or make money. Which leads to an even more contrived push where Copley has in fact been “crazy-boarding” Andy’s movements the last 150 years and proven what a force for good she is.
In case that’s a bit blurry, basically we have a character who has studied the MC and found they are immeasurably good for the human race, but due to losing his wife to illness agrees to capture the immortals for an obviously evil character in the vague hope that the medical advances will be better than the actual good being done. The story sort of presents his evil actions as a mistake, but kind of missteps in basically introducing the character not only making that mistake, but bear in mind quite cruelly executing the immortals to video their immortality. The character was not shown to attempt to negotiate or more harmlessly capture them, or in fact show much concern that if these guys weren’t immortal he literally just tricked and murdered four people who were rumoured immortal.
Unusually we’re faced with a problem of a character not being good or bad enough, instead we either have a comically idiotic good-guy who is unable to perceive the villain is bad OR that his own actions don’t fit with the good he’s trying to do.
But the real beef with Copley versus Andy is the fact that the character development that should be Andy’s is outsourced to Copley. As mentioned Andy is jaded and wonders if their work does the world any good. By finding out that Copley has been historically stalking her for a couple of centuries we are provided with the evidence that in fact they are good. But this is essentially the opposite of every storytelling experts advice in character development. If our MC has a problem they need to take part in a plot that tests them and resolves that problem one way or the other (or gets all post-modern and leaves the problem intentionally unresolved). The point being that the plot as is renders the story uncessary, or rather literally being Andy worries that their work doesn’t help the world as some point during an adventure she discovers that someone has done their research and discovered that you are helping.
I think my frustation is that this could have been manipualted to be both more tense, controversial and interesting. Imagine if Copley proposed to a jaded Andy that she submit herself to research. This then puts Andy in the position of questioning whether medical advances would be more beneficial to the world than her fighting prowess. Rather than just being a series of gunfights with hired goons, the story could revolve around how Andy would make that decision.
Anywho that part really bugged me, but here was a lot more. For example after being betrayed by Copley we are suddenly introduced to a new immortal. Andy goes to collect her, engage in multiple bloody fights before convincing Nile to stay with them. This plot element reminded me a little of the first Hellboy movie, where a naive agent was introduced to the plot to essentially act as the audience member getting introduced to the paranormal – when really we all only cared about Hellboy and didn’t need the normie lens. The intro of Nile doesn’t really fit with any of the rest of the story, but only to provide much excuse for exposition and to have a newbie to really save the day later.
The cringe is really that again this could have tied so much better into the plot, as in a new recruit could really test Andy’s philosophy on whether they are a force for good or not. A naive character would make the perfect judge.
But no instead we essentially get ‘excuse’ storytelling (where really the plot is just the excuses for the wanton violence) I mean they even have one immortal reveal they betrayed the rest because they though the research would reveal a way for them to suicide intentionally, a rather intense and major character point which is barely explored at all beyond the the other’s rebuke for the betrayal, but never at any point to the characters really consider whether research could actually be of benefit (not it can’t because the villian is too evil)
Perhaps I better add again that there were plenty of things that were pretty good about this movie. I think they made a lot of effort to make elements of the characters immortality believable, they all had eccentric quirks and tics around their long lives and were also language experts which fits. That said at times I think the creators tried a little too hard referencing history constantly as we might forget they are immortal.
The reason I’ve felt the need to dissect The Old Guard a little more than most movies is that I think the writing and plotting is a sort of near miss, which highlights what is “good” writing and character development more than your typical bad film or book.
I don’t know if this has been useful for anyone else but I enjoyed it!