"The Guardian" is to the U.S. Coast Guard as 1986's "Top Gun" was to fighter pilots, 2003's "The Recruit
" was to the CIA, 2006's "Annapolis
" was to the Navy, and any number of sports movies are to baseball, basketball, football, etc. They are all virtually the same, covering tried-and-true plot conventions and tugging at the heartstrings in familiar ways. There's the wet-behind-his-ears enlistee/recruit/player and the trainer/commanding officer/coach who is tough on his students because he wants them to be the best they can be. There's the arduous training montages. There's the conflict or misunderstanding that threatens to get the protagonist kicked out. There's the getting-to-know-you scenes at the local bar, complete with carousing, drinking, friendly betting, and possibly even a fight. There's the obligatory love interest. There's the fellow recruit who is weaker and in danger of getting the boot. And, somewhere sprinkled within, there's destined to be a tragic death or two. All of these clichés and more can be checked off during "The Guardian," an otherwise polished, competently made drama. There's one other problem, however, that writes this film's death warrant: it overstays its welcome by at least thirty minutes and tacks on a cornball climax that should have been cut even before it was filmed.
Senior Chief Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) may be closing in on fifty, but he is one of the best rescue swimmers in the history of the United States Coast Guard. His luck goes south when his wife, Helen (Sela Ward), tired of being placed second behind his job, leaves him, and then his luck evaporates altogether when a routine mission on the stormswept sea goes horribly wrong and he watches his best friend and several of his other crew members die. Believing that he needs a break from being a swimmer, commanding chief Captain Bill Hadley (Clancy Brown) sends Ben to be the head instructor at the Coast Guard Training Center. Ben becomes intent on teaching these enlistees exactly what it is like to be a rescue swimmer and the sacrifices that sometimes must be made. He meets his match in Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a hot-shot candidate out to prove he is the best. Behind Jake's confident exterior hides a secret that holds the answers to who he is and why he wants this job so bad, just as Ben himself can't help but be haunted over the guilt of losing his men. Their initially sparring give-and-take eventually turns to mutual respect and even friendship as Jake edges his way toward his own first real-life rescue mission.
Directed with straightforward style by Andrew Davis (2003's "Holes
"), "The Guardian" is a motion picture that, well-made as it is, doesn't know when to quit. Entire sections could and should have been excised without any bearing on the story. Any way you look at it, this sort of commonplace narrative is cookie-cutter filmmaking, even when done with extra verve and intelligence. Because film-watchers of any regularity (or, any film-watchers over the age of ten) will recognize the screenplay outline from the start, there is no excuse for the running time to be substantially over two hours. Indeed, there are two different places where "The Guardian" seems to be concluding, only to go on for an extra fifteen minutes. The second time this happens is particularly maddening since the climax proper that follows is unnecessary, unconvincing, and corny, exchanging subtlety for flashy developments and maudlin emotions.
Before the movie runs itself into the ground, it actually isn't too bad. There is something of a hurdle to overcome for director Andrew Davis and screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff because the stakes aren't raised enough for the story to carry much momentum, but a number of potent character moments and earnest performances make it watchable. Now in his fifties, Kevin Costner (2005's "The Upside of Anger
") brings years of experience and an earned world-weariness to his troubled, outwardly strong character of Ben Randall that a younger performer wouldn't have been able to. As Jake Fischer, Ashton Kutcher is ironically better in his dramatic scenes than he is in his lighter and comedic ones. As proven by 2004's "The Butterfly Effect
" and 2005's "A Lot Like Love
"," Kutcher has more facets to his talent than people who only know him from "That '70s Show" and "Punk'd" give him credit for, and his role in "The Guardian" is an extension of this notion. To be honest, there is room for improvementKutcher overplays things in the first half and has a little trouble making his big-headed character likablebut he settles more comfortably into the role by the second hour.
As the respective women in Ben's and Jake's lives, Sela Ward (2004's "The Day After Tomorrow
") and Melissa Sagemiller (2004's "The Clearing
") nicely fulfill their limited requirements. The relationship between Kutcher's Jake and Sagemiller's Emily could have used some meat to itEmily is hostile toward Jake half the time and in bed with him the restbut the last thing this film needs are additional minutes of footage. The standout performance isn't from any of the principal players, it turns out, but from Bonnie Bramlett, blessing her part as Maggie, an aging singer at a local bar whom longtime friend Ben confides in, with the passion and wisdom and depth and humanity that steals scenes and makes the viewer lean forward and take notice.
"The Guardian" isn't a bad film, and is sure to please wide audiences looking to have their emotions manipulated, but its tendency toward long-windedness and unrefined editing gets the best of it. Even as far as formulaic studio pics go, this past January's "Annapolis
" did the same thing better. In an attempt to make a so-called "important" film, director Andrew Davis has tried too hard and overcompensates with extraneous subplots and an aforementioned ending where the wheels of the contrived screenplay turn so loudly you can almost hear them creaking. In regards to "The Guardian," which by the end has become a blatant, self-serving plug for the U.S. Coast Guard, less all around would have been more.