Title: The Guardian
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Director: Andrew Davis
Screenwriters: Ron L. Brinkerhoff
Starring: Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher, Sela Ward
The Guardian begins as the sort of glossy, well-made Hollywood movie I usually like, and by the end reaches supreme heights of silliness. The director is Andrew Davis, a pro with The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder on his resume, and his earnest approach to this material, though possessed of an old-fashioned charm, ends up accentuating the clichés to the point of turning most of the second half into a howler. As a worshipful tribute to the US Coast Guard, the film is, if nothing else, very persistent — it is insufficient, evidently, to repeat the Coast Guard motto of “So Others May Live” several times throughout, but it must be displayed before the end credits while a rescue helicopter flies majestically across the screen.
In some ways, the movie is actually rather gutsy. It takes considerable chutzpah, after all, to essentially make your main character into God — in the title and the opening and closing voiceover, yes, but also in the countless misty, soft-focus shots of the helicopter floating above the water, ready to lift beleaguered seafarers out of danger and into the sky. Of course, these sorts of subtler maneuvers probably weren’t necessary, since Senior Chief Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) delivers enough speeches about his life-saving exploits to be canonized on the spot.
Ben’s story hits all the main points. In an opening scene, his wife leaves him because he’s “married to the Coast Guard,” and the film doesn’t neglect to put in the moment where, as he’s begging her not to leave — he can fix this, he implores — his pager goes off, he winces in frustration, and she tells him that he should really answer that. Oh, and there’s also the Accident, of which Ben is the sole survivor, and in several excruciating, red-tinted flashbacks, we see him desperately trying to save his buddy as they huddle in their life raft. Though all he wants to do is be in the water, Ben is sent to teach at the Coast Guard Academy’s “A-School” for rescue swimmers, where he determines to close the gap between training and the open sea.
The A-School, we are told, has the highest attrition rate of any military academy — over fifty percent. That sort of information is, of course, the cue for any self-respecting drill instructor, and when Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) and his class of hopeful recruits arrive on the bus, just such a drill instructor tells them in no uncertain terms that they have fifteen seconds to get off. Jake is a high school swim champ who had a scholarship to “every Ivy League school” but chose A-School instead. Why? No fair telling, but suffice it to say that the has the initials of the guys on his old swim team tatooed on his arm.
The film is tolerably conventional while at school, taking us through the obligatory training montages and bar scenes as it continues to deify Ben Randall: Marvel! As he dispatches obstinate underlings, sardonically puts the arrogant swim champ in his place, all while juggling live tuna! It’s formula, but Andrew Davis knows formula and plows forward efficiently, his only stylistic venture being a few occasional frames of slow motion before the end of a particularly vital scene.
All hell ultimately breaks loose, as the screenplay unleashes a hysterical barrage of clichés in the last act. If you paused the film at the halfway mark and tried to conceive of the sappiest, most awesomely sentimental, dramatic and ridiculous conclusion, you wouldn’t approach what writer Ron Brinkerhoff actually comes up with here. I watched in awe; what had theretofore been a merely ordinary bit of hero-mongering suddenly turned into a veritable symphony of overblown dramatics, with one absurd flourish coming after another. “You have got to be kidding” is the best phrase to describe the last 40 minutes.
I haven’t (until now) emphasized the fact that The Guardian stars Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, and I think the upshot of that goes without saying. And it is not as if The Guardian needed more silliness than it already had. I don’t think anyone anticipated this perfect storm of unrestrained Hollywood excess.