The Guardian Review
By Shawn McKenzie 09/30/2006
Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is a legendary rescue swimmer in the United States Coast Guard. In fact, in the opening scene of the movie, he rescues a married couple (Tanner Gill and Leigh Hennessy.) He had to punch out the husband to do so though, because the guy was trying to drown his wife in order to save himself. When Ben gets back to his station in Kodiak, Alaska, he finds out that his nurse wife Helen (Sela Ward) has moved out because she thinks that he puts the job over their marriage. On his next rescue mission, he makes a rescue attempt in the Bering Sea during a massive storm. Unfortunately, things go horribly wrong and he loses everyone, including his friend and partner Carl Billings (Omari Hardwick.) Ben’s superior, Captain William Hadley (Clancy Brown), thinks that he might be getting a little too old for rescuing, and he gives Ben two options: retire with honors, or teach new recruits at Barksdale Air Force’s “A” school. Ben takes the teaching job, and he is now under the supervision of Captain Frank Larson (John Heard.) He works with other instructors, such as Jack Skinner (Neal Mcdonough.) The Coast Guard “A” school is considered to be one of the most stringent in the armed forces, and about 50% of the recruits don’t make it all of the way. One of the recruits is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a champion high school swimmer who plans to break all of Ben’s records before he is through. Other recruits include Billy Hodge (Brian Geraghty), who is going through the class for the third time; Mitch Lyons (Brian Wade), a muscle-bound recruit who is ironically booted out first; the sexist Danny Doran (Peter Gail); the clichéd silent black recruit Ken Weatherly (a wasted Dulé Hill), and female recruit Cate Lindsey (Shelby Fenner.) Ben is tough, but fair, and he has them participate in unusual training exercises, such as literally freezing them in a chilly pool so that they know how to handle hypothermia. While hanging out at widowed singer Maggie McGlone’s (Bonnie Bramlett) watering hole, Jake meets local schoolteacher Emily Thomas (Melissa Sagemiller) after the other recruits bet him that he can’t pick her up. She knew what the recruits were up to, and she goes along with it for half of the bet money. They start dating, but she wants to keep things casual, since she figures that Jake will be gone after his 16-week training program is over. In the meantime, Jake tries to break all of Ben’s records, but Ben isn’t impressed, since he thinks that Jake is more concerned with breaking records than rescuing lives. After Jake and Hodge land in jail following a bar fight, Ben bails them out, and Jake reveals his dark secrets to Ben as to why he decided to join the Coast Guard. The two men bond, and Jake’s relationship with Emily progresses, but Ben is still haunted by the tragedy at the beginning of the movie.
When I did my research for The Guardian, I didn’t realize that the Coast Guard was the only one out of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces (the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marines are the other four) whose sole purpose was for rescuing people, not initiating combat. While I have a lot of respect for the military, the movie really clued me into how the men and women of the Coast Guard are true heroes. I just wish that this overly long tale wasn’t so formulaic.
The acting was fine from the two lead roles. It always seems like every role will be Costner’s “comeback” role from his heyday of classics like 1988’s Bull Durham, 1989’s Field of Dreams, 1990’s Dances with Wolves, and 1991’s JFK…but for me personally, I think that he came back with last year’s The Upside of Anger. This movie won’t bring him any Oscar noms, but at least it won’t remind anyone of his mega-failures, like 1995’s Waterworld, 1997’s The Postman, or the worst one of them all…2001’s 3000 Miles to Graceland. The performance of Kutcher might prove to everyone something that I already knew…that he could actually act. Playing dunderhead Michael Kelso for eight seasons on FOX’s “That ‘70s Show” may have made people think that he couldn’t act. It didn’t help that he appeared in 2000’s horrible Dude, Where’s My Car?, along with MTV’s sophomoric celebrity hidden camera show “Punk’d” (which is actually one of the only attempts at a humorous series on MTV that I enjoy.) I personally don’t care about an actor’s personal life, but some other critics may confuse his marriage with Demi Moore with poor acting abilities. His first foray into the dramatic field was 2004’s time-traveling flick The Butterfly Effect, which I consider one of the best movies of that year (which goes against the opinions of most of my colleagues.) So…if you think that Kutcher can’t act (and you haven’t seen Butterfly yet), then this movie might convince you otherwise.
The females in the lives of the leads were okay as well, if underutilized. Sagemiller is sexy as the schoolteacher who we only get to see teach a class once in the movie. This movie and her role in Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell” have made me take notice of her. Ward did her scorned almost-ex-wife role well, but she is in the movie so little that her part almost could have been written out and it wouldn’t have affected the flow of the movie.
The effects were spectacular. A massive indoor wave pool was used for the production of the movie, but you would never be able to tell by just looking at it.
Why then did I dog it in my opening paragraph? Two factors…the story and the length. I have seen these military stories too many times (as recently as this year’s Annapolis), and I guess that I am tired of seeing 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman and 1986’s Top Gun rehashed for the zillionth time. Also, the movie clocked in at two hours and 19 minutes. At about the two-hour mark, you will begin to look at your watch (I certainly did.) After like the fifth or sixth rescue (I really didn’t count), you will begin to say to yourself, “Is this thing over?” Maybe if they had cut the Ward scenes, the movie would have not felt so long…but I doubt it.
Andrew Davis is noted for directing the action films Under Siege (from 1992) and The Fugitive (from 1993), and he didn’t disappoint with the acting or the effects in The Guardian, but Ron L. Brinkerhoff’s screenplay did. At the very least, you can watch the movie and appreciate the fact that the Coast Guard saves 5,000 lives and $2.5 billion worth of property in an average year (during the 2005 hurricane season, they rescued or evacuated an estimated 33,520 people in the Gulf States devastated by Hurricane Katrina.) That alone makes it worth checking out.
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