Thursday, September 28, 2006
Hollywood—as long as there has been a Hollywood—has been built on formula filmmaking. But there is formula filmmaking, and then there are movies so steeped in formula that they could suckle the infants of several nations.
Take, just for example, The Guardian. It stars Kevin Costner as Ben Randall, a veteran Coast Guard rescue swimmer stationed in Alaska whose wife (Sela Ward) has reached the end of her tether because You Are Married to the Coast Guard, Not to Me®. After experiencing a Traumatizing On-the-Job Failure®, Randall takes a leave of absence to become the Grizzled Mentor® at a California training facility. There, among the new recruits, he faces off with a Cocky Young Turk® named Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), who has his own Motivating Dark Secret®. Did I mention also that someone dies shortly after announcing that Maybe I Should Retire From this Life-Threatening Occupation in Which I Am Engaged, Because I Am Getting Too Old For This Sh-t®?
Certified public accountancy is less by the numbers than Ron L. Brinkerhoff’s script, yet somehow The Guardian maintains a certain low-level hum of energy. Every time it feels like the film is about to sink beyond hope of salvation into a mess of rote situations followed by rote resolutions, it’ll drop in a snappy scene, or a lived-in supporting performance. Veteran jazz singer Bonnie Bramlett gets a great role as the proprietor of the local dive bar, and a terrific speech about reaching the autumn of one’s years. Melissa Sagemiller gives a nice pop to the thankless part of Fischer’s boot-camp fling. Even the training sequences offer a little insight to go with the displays of machismo and the tossed salad of personalities that is Fischer’s class of fellow trainees.
It’s not even a problem that its two stars are more noteworthy for almost anything besides the versatility of their acting chops. Poor Kevin Costner has become something of a punch line over the years, but here he’s in his comfort zone. He’s never better than when he’s playing weary and slightly gone-to-seed—see Bull Durham, or last year’s The Upside of Anger—and thankfully he gets to play more wry than overwrought. Kutcher plays off him nicely as the good-looking charmer, losing his way only when he’s asked to get emotional. It’s almost like watching Costner 20 years ago. You’d like to think Kutcher might learn a couple of lessons in career management.
Yet for as many little things as The Guardian manages to do right, it falls short because it fails in a crucial goal of formula filmmaking: efficiency. Director Andrew Davis has been living off the success of The Fugitive for 13 years now, primarily because his subsequent films have suffered from beached whale-level bloating. The pacing in this 130-minute affair lags consistently, leaving lengthy stretches between the low-key satisfactions. When you construct a story around hitting familiar points, it’s best to get in and get out—not hang around hollering, “Hey, look what I got here; it’s a familiar point.”
Plenty of viewers might be interested most in the kind of visceral thrills promised by a movie about saving lives, and I suppose The Guardian might work on that level if you try not to notice how obviously its showpiece sequences look like they were shot in a giant above-ground pool. As recruiting films disguised as feature films go—complete with dropped-in dialogue about Hurricane Katrina rescues and a dedication to the brave men and women etc.—this one manages to offer a certain sturdy appeal. It’s the kind of movie you’ll flip past on basic cable in five years, and find yourself not quite able to turn off, even though you know deep down that your time would be better spent if you’d just go to bed already.
THE GUARDIAN ( * * )
Directed by Andrew Davis. • Starring Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher and Melissa Sagemiller. • PG-13, 136 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.