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Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: The Guardian is more than a little clichéd. Now let's get this out of the way: I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I thought I would.
After a helicopter crash during a rescue mission off the coast of Alaska takes the lives of his crew, veteran Coast Guard rescue swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is ordered to accept a position as the senior instructor at the Guard's Louisiana training grounds. Among the newest batch of recruits is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a cocky former high school swim champion who turned down scholarships from several top universities in favor of joining the service. Randall thinks Fischer has signed up just to satisfy his own ego and thirst for recognition, and the two men immediately clash. But as the truth about Fischer's actual motives is revealed, and his innate skills become more and more apparent, he and Randall forge a bond that will carry over into active duty.
Despite its numerous conventional elements, The Guardian is still quite entertaining. Director Andrew Davis (best known for The Fugitive) doesn't always make great movies, but he always does solid work (if that makes any sense). Heck, the guy even managed to make a pretty good Steven Seagal flick (that would be Under Siege), so he deserves all the accolades he can get. Here he takes a formula script and does what he can to elevate the material through sheer craft. Yes, the movie's too long, but it's never boring, and Davis moves things along at a steady clip. The rescue sequences are impressively, excitingly mounted, and the standard training montages (don't tell me you weren't expecting training montages) work far better than they should (even if Davis's choice of music leaves much to be desired). As a director Davis has no signature style, but I think that's one of his strengths. As much as I find myself engaged by certain filmmakers who crank it up and employ every cinematic trick at their disposal, some movies call for simple skill rather than overblown stylistics. I'd say this is one of those, and you could far do worse than Davis for such a project.
The movie also gets a great deal of mileage from its leads; although the outcome of their characters' relationship is a foregone conclusion, the easy, natural chemistry between the stars lends an air of believability to the proceedings. This isn't the first time we've seen Costner play a headstrong iconoclast, but there's no denying he's good at it. It's also nice to see him sliding comfortably into a pattern of playing mature characters; hopefully he'll continue to buck the trend so many of his contemporaries have given into. As for Kutcher, he can't quite totally shuck the baggage his past roles have created, but he does a credible job here. And their efforts are aided by good supporting work from Clancy Brown, Neal McDonough, and Sela Ward. (I'm always more than happy to watch Ward, but that's a topic for another day.)
Now here's what really frustrates me about The Guardian: a little fine-tuning here and there would have resulted in a markedly superior movie. First off, it's a good twenty or twenty-five minutes too long. The repetitive first half could easily have been trimmed, and Kutcher's relationship with the school teacher played by Melissa Sagemiller could have been jettisoned altogether. And the ending is a letdown. It's not the ultimate outcome that bothered me, but I think the events leading up to it are too contrived. Yes, the whole plot is rather contrived, but this didn't really bother me until the climax, which is so forced it left a bad taste in my mouth and lessened my overall opinion of the movie. And if they were dead set on using the ending as written, it would have played a lot better without the dialogue and narration.
There's a subdued, naturalistic look to the movie, and this comes through nicely in the 1.85:1 transfer. Black levels and details are solid. The only truly bold colors you'll find are the red hues of the rescue choppers and the swimmers' suits; these are also rendered quite well, and the contrast between these brighter colors and the numerous blacks and grays is quite striking. (The rescue sequences primarily take place at night, probably in order to help smooth out the CG effects.) Grain is noticeable on a handful of occasions, but it only becomes a problem during some of the 2nd Unit footage filmed in Alaska; one shot are practically swarming with it.
The audio is available in Uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital 5.1 options. Dialogue drives much of the movie, and the mix is often anchored to the front channels, with the surrounds occasionally called upon to convey ambient sounds. Things get loud and immersive during the rescue sequences, with wind, whirling chopper rotors, crashing waves, and one booming explosion filling the soundstage. Dialogue generally sounds very good, although a couple of lines sound canned. You won't go wrong selecting the Dolby track, but the PCM track is smoother and more expansive. French and Spanish Dolby Digital options are also available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The commentary by director Andy Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff is a better-than-average chat track. There's very little dead air, quite a bit of interesting information, and the two--for lack of a better phrase--feed off each other nicely. Not surprisingly, Brinkerhoff concentrates on story and character, leaving Davis to discuss the technical side of the production.
The Guardian: Making Waves (11 minutes) is a run-of-the-mill making-of featurette, offering up the standard interviews and behind-the-scenes clips.
Unsung Heroes (4 minutes) offers interview and rescue footage featuring real-life Coast Guard swimmers. There's some truly compelling material here, which makes me wish this featurette were much longer.
Also included is an alternate ending, which was written and filmed for no other reason than to appease the suits at Disney. Good thing it wasn't used. (Be warned: the description of this scene on the disc's packaging ruins the movie's climax. Not a wise move.)
Closing things out are four deleted scenes (7 minutes total). Davis and Brinkerhoff provide optional commentary for these scenes. Three of them were wisely deleted, but one explains why a notable supporting character is missing from the movie's second half.
Although it could have been much worse, it could have been better. Regardless, The Guardian is still entertaining enough to warrant at least one viewing.