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Guardian, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 29 September 2006
I grew up on the Oregon Coast near the mouth of the huge Umpqua River. The Coast Guard station was established in 1896, has moved slightly a couple of times, and is now in the fishing town of Winchester Bay. As long as I can remember, the Coast Guard was always there, but rarely made their presence known, as steady and reliable as the sun and moon. They showed up when needed, did their work well and quickly, then more or less vanished again. You didn’t have to think about them, you didn’t have to thank them. They just did it.

There have been few movies about the Coast Guard; in fact, the only other one I can recall is a serial with Bela Lugosi as the villain, which shows how long ago it was released. I presume the main drawback to centering movies on the Coast Guard is that unlike the branches of the military that go to war, there’s no inherent conflict in the activities of the Guard: they just save lives, over and over. Their motto is as selfless as their work: So That Others May Live.

They popped up in the public consciousness in the wake of Katrina the same way firemen became more visible after 9/11. The Coast Guard saved people along the stricken Gulf Coast, then they went away again. They’ll show up when they’re needed; you can rely on it.

“The Guardian” may act as a recruiting poster for the Coast Guard because it shows them as not just selfless savers of lives, but gung-ho hooyah tough handsome young bucks, full of energy, determination and courage. The story is the same one we’ve seen again and again told about other groups of young men—it’s a training film. You know the drill: tough older guy, a hero of his profession, takes on a gang of green, egotistical recruits and whips them into shape, while focusing on one in particular. At the climax, his teachings are put to the test.

So there’s nothing new to the story of “The Guardian,” and like so many movies recently, at 139 minutes it’s just too damned long. But it’s great fun to watch, even with the odd shift into mysticism in the last scene. It’s very well cast; the main grizzled veteran is Ben Randall (Kevin Costner), the greatest, life-savingist Rescue Swimmer in Coast Guard history. The main gung-ho recruit is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), sure he can trump all of Randall’s records, but who also is driven by darkness by his past; of course, we don’t get the details until well into the movie.
As it opens off Sitka, Alaska, Randall is with his team, helicoptering out to a stricken fishing vessel in the icy Bering Sea. But something goes terribly wrong, and all on his team, including his best friend, are killed in a night of fiery explosions, blazing orange-red flares and raging seas. When Ben finally gets home, his wife Helen (Sela Ward) is in the process of leaving him; she’s fed up with his devotion to the Guard. His tough but fair commanding officer (a very well-cast Clancy Brown, as imposing as a seaside cliff) realizes that Ben is not really back in shape and assigns him to teach new recruits dead-set on becoming Rescue Swimmers.

Ben goes south—evidently to Seattle, but the movie was largely shot in Shreveport, Louisiana—and reluctantly takes over teaching. He immediately recognizes Jake as someone who might turn out well, but whose ego is likely to trip him up. He notices Jake’s last name, of course, and takes to calling him Goldfisch. Naturally, they clash. Naturally, Jake falls for sexy, sardonic local teacher Emily (Melissa Sagemiller).

Screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff has to be marked off for lack of originality, but scores well on clearly distinguishing between the dwindling group of recruits (one of whom is a woman). The pillow talk between Jake and Emily is sharp and funny, but has little relation to the overall story, or even to what’s troubling Jake.

Meanwhile, Ben keeps having screaming nightmares about that helicopter crash and his inability to save his best friend. About the only person he can talk to is local barkeep Maggie (Bonnie Bramlett), a salty old broad and great singer, the widow of a Coast Guard friend of Ben’s.

Ben focuses on the training, emphasizing again and again the basic idea: saving lives. That’s their only job, and they have to do it in the water, often when it’s near freezing. He says that they’ll spend 60% of their lives in a state of mild hypothermia. His recruits (one of whom is played by Dule Hill from “The West Wing”) respect him and work hard, but the attrition rate for Rescue Swimmers in training is about 50%.

Technically, the film is a wowser. Location shots of rocky shores, thunderous waves and foaming surf are woven into scenes filmed in a specially-built tank which could generate waves up to eight feet in height. CGI is used very well to extend the tank out to an entire sea, and the large number of stunt personnel is expanded by more undetectable CGI. The movie is extremely realistic.

Too bad it’s so long. Toward the end, the movie brings up scene after scene that looks like a good penultimate moment—and then goes on. And on. The actual ending is likely to annoy some viewers, and probably wasn’t necessary.

Costner is in his element, here, and not just because he had webbed fingers in “Waterworld.” He’s an uneven actor, but at his best—like here—he’s a great movie hero in the Gary Cooper mold. His eyes have seen terrible things, his face has been etched with the lines of determination and tragedy—and he can be funny. He’s as good here as he was in “Dances with Wolves,” “A Perfect World,” “Open Range” and “The Upside of Anger”—but there’s little in common among those roles. He’s masculine, upright, sarcastic, heroic and weatherbeaten; like Cary Grant, he looks better the older he gets.

Ashton Kutcher has been the punchline of a lot of jokes, primarily for his May-December romance with (and, finally, marriage to) Demi Moore. How could this guy from a TV sitcom (“That 70s Show”) wind up with a choice sexpot like Demi? Well, folks, he did it, so you can all shut up, now. And furthermore, without anyone noticing, he’s turned into a good actor and a hunk; he spends much of “The Guardian” in swim trunks, which will please a lot of people. But he also gives a decent performance of a troubled hotshot. It’s not a challenging role and most of it is in the script, but Kutcher holds his own as a movie star. He’ll do well in the future.

The rest of the cast is rugged and heroic, even that woman among the trainees, and they spend a lot of time in the water. Yes, there were stunt doubles and special effects, but this movie was clearly pretty tough on its cast. Pale-eyed Neal McDonough, as one of the trainers, finally gets a good-guy role after vividly playing bad guys in a variety of TV shows; he’s on the brink of a long-lasting movie career. Clancy Brown is always a welcome sight; here, he spends most of his time with shoulders squared, forced to give bad news to his pal Ben Randall. And as usual, he’s completely convincing.

Despite overlength, “The Guardian” holds audience interest right up to the end; it’s about a branch of the military rarely depicted in movies, but one that deserves more recognition. It’s a sleek movie more about training than about action, but director Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”) never lets us down—it’s great fun to watch.

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