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Sentinel, The (2006)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 21 April 2006

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Film Rating:
3.5
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The United States Secret Service has two primary missions: to protect the President and other officials, and to deal with counterfeiters. You’d think it would be a bottomless well of thriller ideas, but before “The Sentinel,” of modern movies only “In the Line of Fire” (1993), with Clint Eastwood, focused on the Secret Service. While “The Sentinel” isn’t up to the level of that memorable movie, it’s in the same ballpark. It’s interesting rather than engrossing, an entertaining action movie even if inot entirely satisfying.

It was directed by actor Clark Johnson (from “Homicide: Life on the Streets”), who has a small role here as a Secret Service agent who’s killed in the opening minutes of the movie. (Is this the first movie since “Citizen Kane” in which the director dies early on?) Johnson has helmed many TV episodes but only one previous theatrical feature, 2003’s “S.W.A.T.”

His style is a little too flamboyant; the color is overstated, the visuals deliberately harsh and ragged. He also tosses in lots of stills, shots of notes threatening the President, what seems to be security video footage, etc. This stuff is punctuation and often effective in that regard, but he also includes shots through camera viewfinders and the like, evidently the POV of some bad guys tracking our heroes. It’s usually difficult to tell if what we’re seeing is Style or a villain’s surveillance.

Also, toward the end the layout of the building in which the climax takes place—some big glitzy structure in Toronto—is more than a little confusing. So is the action—suddenly our heroes are confronted by bad guys in flak jackets, helmets and wielding powerful automatic weaponry. Who are they? We have to assume they’re the hirelings of the main Bad Guys, and not the Toronto police force.

But most of the time “The Sentinel”’s colorful plot works well. It’s beautifully photographed in Panavision by Gabriel Beristáin, who also photographed “S.W.A.T.”, and with realistic production design by the busy Andrew McAlpine. Technically, the film is everything a big-scale studio movie should be: great score, good cast from top to bottom, and excellent sound.

Michael Douglas is Pete Garrison, a long-time Secret Service agent who was among those who saved Reagan from being assassinated. Now he’s upper-echelon, assigned to protect First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger). As the movie opens, Jill Marin (Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria) joins the White House staff of Secret Service investigator David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland). He’s a doctrinaire, by-the-book, follow-the-evidence hard liner, and immediately gives Marin a hard time.

Here and there, we gradually learn that David and Pete were best friends for ten years, but recently had a major falling out—David believed Pete was having an affair with his wife. Close but no cigar: Pete’s actually having an affair with the First Lady. This is unknown to all, including President Ballentine (busy David Rasche, a long way from “Sledge Hammer”), who’s busy with affairs of state.

The screenplay by George Nolfi, from a novel by Gerald Petievich (a former Secret Service agent), is a little clumsy in terms of exposition. All it takes is one conversation with a reliable street-person snitch for Pete to learn there’s a plot to assassinate the President—and that a Secret Service agent, inside the White House, is working with the would-be assassins. This follows the murder of Pete’s friend, Agent Merriweather (director Johnson), apparently gunned down for knowing too much. But about what?

Because of David’s anger, it’s not easy for Pete to work with him, but they persevere—the President’s safety is of paramount importance. And it’s also important for Pete to keep his affair with the First Lady a secret—but then he is anonymously mailed surveillance photos of him and Mrs. Ballentine at one of their secret rendezvous.

Then things get complicated as Pete finds himself at the center of an elaborate frameup designed to make everyone believe that he is the renegade agent. So he goes on the run, pursued by David and his agents, although this gets a little murky as time passes. Pete has an advantage: he’s worked with, even trained, many of those pursuing him, and he knows what they’re most likely to do.

Though he can be a memorable heavy—remember Gordon Gecko?—Michael Douglas is well-cast as the hero. It’s easy to believe him throwing over decades of faithful service in order to have an affair with the woman he’s supposed to be protecting. And it’s equally easy to accept him as the hero on the run, every hand against him. There’s not a lot of depth to Pete’s character, but this is a suspense/action thriller, and the role doesn’t need to be rich.

Kiefer Sutherland is here on leave from “24” but plays a role similar to the one he has in the series. At the beginning, he’s brusque and doctrinaire, dismaying newcomer Longoria, but eventually he loses this cranky edge. He’s a good match with Douglas. Thirty years ago, this plot could easily have been filmed with the fathers of the two leads here in the starring roles: Kirk Douglas and Donald Sutherland.

At times director Johnson sacrifices coherence for excitement, and skips over some plot developments. For example, after a while David’s pursuit of Pete is evidently called off in favor of concentrating on the assassination plot. Earlier than you’d expect, David and Pete reach a rapprochement with little if any lingering resentment. Some plot threads are left dangling—why is it so important at the beginning to note that the murdered agent didn’t click off his pistol’s safety catch? What happens to the investigation by the Washington D.C. cops? How does Douglas gain access to what he needs in the Toronto police headquarters?

Mostly, however, Johnson and his team deliver the thriller goods: the movie is well-paced, individual scenes are tense (though rarely crackling) and humor is scattered through the film to good effect—even though you might suspect some of the laughs weren’t intended. Sutherland is often the central figure in a scene, but unlike Douglas, doesn’t have any to himself—there’s no question that Douglas is the S*T*A*R of “The Sentinel;” in fact, he must be the Sentinel himself.

“The Sentinel” isn’t an outstanding action/suspense movie, but despite some stumbles, it’s a good one and will hold thriller-hungry audiences until “Mission Impossible: 3” thunders into theaters.







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