After facing tragedy when a routine operation goes horribly wrong, Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is sent to train the next generation of swimmers while he recuperates. Dealing with a failed marriage and the nightmares of his mistake, Ben reluctantly accepts the job, and meets his untrained recruits. The alpha male of the group is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a boastful, well-trained swimmer who is desperate to succeed, but fearful of failure. Ben notices something special in Jake, and the two begin to bond as the job soon puts him back into the face of danger.
"The Guardian" is pre-loaded with all the good ingredients for a pleasant autumn movie hit; it's hard to feel anything but love for it from the outside looking in. The picture is a solidly American story with a heavy, rigidly respectful appreciation for the Coast Guard and the bravery it takes to join the ranks. It has a Hollywood pro in the lead, and a younger actor worth keeping an eye on. It also treads in heroism, which for some audiences, is like a Sunday afternoon with catnip.
However, "The Guardian" flatlines far too quickly; it's half of a great picture, pulled excruciatingly slow like taffy to an interminable 135 minutes, and is far too eager to pursue formula instead of staking out its own special personality. Director Andrew Davis might have a filmography simpatico with the story "Guardian" is trying to tell ("The Fugitive," "Under Siege"), but the picture reeks of the worst, most cheeseball directing impulses from him. Filled with ugly step-printing and chaotic staging, "Guardian" could be mistaken for a CBS television movie at times, making it hard to stay excited for this big screen affair.
Perhaps Davis was tripped up by the screenplay from Ron Brinkerhoff, who bathes the story in soapy cliché to give it a familiar feel for the mass audience. Brinkerhoff grips tightly to traditional screenwriting formula, inserting required character histories to make his page count, but he neglects to recognize the pieces aren't coming together. I can understand the hunt to find something for Costner and Kutcher to do outside of their action sequences, but when that thinking leads to a meaningless love interest for Jake, which steals away crucial attention from the real and terribly dramatic reason why Jake wants to be a Rescue Swimmer in the first place, it kills the flow of the film.
Costner fares much better with his arc simply because he's an actor who makes the time and effort to inject his roles with some trimmings of authenticity. Matched up beautifully with Sela Ward as his bitter, estranged wife, Costner communicates the overcast of Ben's lament in ways that are accessible and truthful to character. If fact, there are times when I wished the whole Kutcher character was dropped so we could spend more time with Costner and Ward, and their tempestuous marriage severed by Ben's commitment to the sea.
Through routine training montages (one shot on DV that Davis has no clue how to get out of), "Guardian" maintains a cruising altitude that doesn't inspire, but doesn't necessarily offend either. As the film enters its action-based third act, the filmmaker goes for an epic movement of tragedy that sinks the film like a stone. If "Guardian" truly wanted to sock its audience in the gut, perhaps a little more effort in the story department was in order rather than lazily relaying on cliché. The climax here is forceful, direct, and ultimately mythical, but it feels like it's buying its way into your heart in place of engaging it naturally, and that is the worst type of emotional fraud around.
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