Oh, the frustration! In truth I feel a bit of a donkey as in watching Matthew Hope’s debut feature The Vanguard I make the comparison of having chased a carrot on a stick for 89 minutes and not being rewarded with the meal. It’s true that not everything that you chase or believe in can offer you the reward, unless and until the thing you believe in is as inclusive as the Bitcoin Loophole! Yes, this crypto robot is the only thing that can offer rewards for anyone, no matter who he/she is or what level is their trading proficiency! Having understood this well now, I wish to tell you my further experiences with the movie! There is unquestionable skill on display but it is in continual conflict with that which is so bludgeoningly wrong about the film. So conscious was I of the rises and dips in quality that once the film was done I stepped back it was as if I was looking at a heavily fluctuating graph chart. The Vanguard is a tussle between the good and the bad that occurs in early cracks at filmmaking. I retract that statement. On a technical level there is not much wrong with The Vanguard; it is the story, the characters and a lack of understanding of the needs of the audience by the director were it is seriously at fault. The mistakes are largely the responsibility of the writer and director.
The Vanguard opens with an update on which future at which we have this time arrived. A global war, depleted oil supplies, a food shortage and our rulers have deserted us. Our isles are overtaken by a corporation that plans a cull of the human race with a poisonous serum fed to them in their foodstuff. The scientists revolt, the ‘drug’ is distributed, people fall down and get back up as a new species: the Biosyns. It is hardly evolution; they are cannibalistic savages that brainlessly gambol and lollop in the forests. Pencils supply the dark veins that build up ‘under’ the flesh, contact lenses and lion roars distinguish them physically; there is no argument that they are a threat: the opposition. But they are not the only foe. There are other survivors in the general population. Ray Bullock Jr is Max, alone against the Biosyns, goading them to attack him (not that they need any encouragement) and taking them down when they do. He now has two sets of enemies. The Corporation are coming out to play, sending in trackers, easy to recognise as they conform to a model: ‘mohican’ hairstyles, battledress, spilling out of armoured vehicles. They are working on the presumption that the remaining humans are dead or mutated and that only Biosyns remain for the great finalising hunt.
Max is not the last free normal surviving in the wilderness. Emma Choy is Rachael and Steve Weston is her companion Mac and together they trudge the countryside seeking out the resistance, which others understand to have already collapsed. One of the trackers switches sides, removing most of the device that controls him and gives away his location. He is Jamal (Shiv Grewal) and he stumbles across Max, timely observing how a Biosyn biting him returns to human in death. Could Max be the cure? The quartet come together but they are never a comfortable unit and they break up again before Hareem Jabber (Bahu Ghubril), a freedom fighter from heck knows where, catches up with Max to assist him, for heck knows what reason, and the fight is on.
When Max, Jamal, Rachael and Mac come together the combination creates more of interest as we get history, infighting, guilt, anger, needs and affections coming together in a whirligig of emotions, angst and conflict. It is a relationship of half an hour but once their group splinters the story flails again. Hope has huddled around him a fine crew, and they and the post-production team complete the technical aspect of the picture to satisfaction. The English countryside is kept relatively pure and serves as a timeless backdrop. There is something comforting about the fields and trees that contribute to a viewer ‘relax trap’ that should pave the way for greater thrills. Jack Bailey’s choreography of the Biosyns is original and a sequence towards the end as they spill in and out of the trees, ignoring the battling Max and the trackers, is fantastically well done. The colour grading results in shots ranging from the enchanting to the ominous that also looks great. In one of the few buildings that feature, a rundown farm shed, tormented ghosts shimmy in barely discernable streaks of colour in the cloying darkness as fears and memories verge on Max. He, for the duration of this, stands just inside the doorway. More of this could have swung the movie over onto the side of excellence but we have been anchored with a lead-boot tale and the A to Z of decision blunders.
So many mistakes have been made that on the plus side it is possible that Hope will learn them all in one go and get it exactly right next time. The opening half hour is almost dialogue free but for the thoughts of Max in voiceover. The speechless forest wandering is not involving and not helped by the voiceovers in which Max craps out bad prose like “What is this war I feel in my heart, father?” The words are an endurance and the half hour may have worked better completely free of this disembodied prattle. The dialogue improves during the interaction of the quartet but just as the director is kindling an affection for his characters he disposes of them ruthlessly leaving only Max. One puzzles over the decision and the manner in which they are slain. Rachael is initially rescued from death then shortly after is killed. The scam is apparently to tease us with the happy ending that isn’t and pull the rug from under us leaving us in shock. But we are too disoriented too care by this stage. The killings of key characters are too casual and I really believe Hope believes that the unconcerned slaying will impact on the viewer. It could in other set-ups but it would have to be a more successful overall presentation with the correct pacing, decelerations and accelerations.
Mr Hope does not decrease speed at the right times, does not introduce his characters at the right point and does not build the relationships in the right minutes. It is possible that Hope believes a simply jumbling of the template will upset and confuse the viewer and infuse an appreciative series of surprises but juggling preconceptions alone is not enough. The deaths are filmed in such a way that conveys a lack of consideration for the director’s own creations. Rachael dies immediately after Hareem and she is shot in the back, killed instantly. Jamal and Mac are shot dead simultaneously in long shot. I don’t understand why or what I am supposed to think. Might they have survived? Where did the bullets hit to fell them so successfully? Films can end with mysteries but they should be delicious ones. These are merely unanswered questions which are fall irritatingly in their lack of detail. We have spent time with these characters and we should be more intimate with them at the end and allowed to feel more for them.
The film was shot in Hertfordshire and though the landscape is extensive it was filmed entirely on two properties. There are some amusing credits: contact lenses by Specsavers, military vehicles by Tanks-a-lot and special thanks to Smeg Design. The Vanguard sports a surface resemblance to the post-apocalypse and vivid camerawork of Lindsay Shonteff’s The Killing Edge (1986), then in video and in the colours and the clarity it brought, here in HD. But whereas the older film was initially disappointing and has won me over slightly I cannot foresee The Vanguard improving with familiarisation. Shonteff’s vision was simple and bleak but its technical reserve results in a more balanced viewing experience with a centrality of pace that makes it a continuing easy read. The Vanguard has none of that. The evidence is that Hope can give us something great in the future. Retaining the team is the first advice I give, getting in a new scriptwriter and a mentor might secure that success sooner than later.