The Guardian (2006)
Ever since 9/11 we’ve been redefining who exactly qualifies as a hero. We’re stepping away from the old line of thinking, money and fame, and reexamining those selfless few that protect us, like firefighters, policemen, doctors, and military personnel. But when the culture defines a new hero, then the Hollywood tribute canonizing that role is sure to follow. We’ve had plenty of recent films looking at those who put their lives on the line, but are we, as a friend asked, scraping the bottom of the hero barrel when we devote an entire movie to the U.S. Coast Guard? And does it help your film in this day and age to feature Kevin Costner in a leading role?
Ben Randall (Costner) is a senior officer in the Coast Guard’s team of rescue swimmers, men and women first on the scene no matter what the situation is like. He’s the lone survivor of a rescue attempt gone awry and it’s badly shaken his confidence and ability to perform. He’s reassigned to a teaching position to mold the next generation of rescue swimmers. Enter Jake “Fischbowl” Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a champion swimmer with an oversized ego. He takes every abuse Ben can dish, and slowly but surely he learns what it takes to devote your life to a job whose motto consists of, “So that others may live.”
To enjoy this movie you must come to grips with the fact that it is born atop a mountain of clichés. I mean a whole slew of clichés, so many that you may feel genre fatigue by the end of its 140-minutes. It’s like every other military training film. The old buck readjusting to his new position as teacher. The young hotshot he butts heads with but eventually forms a father-son relationship. The tragic pasts both have that still haunt them. Old buck’s job demands cause marital discord. The many many training montages. The requisite bar fight as team building activity. The local girl who starts off as a fling but develops into something more. The lessons about teamwork over individual gain. There’s a sassy bar owner that dispenses life advice. The old buck being pulled back into the game one more time to save his pupil and consequently overcoming his guilt/fear/apprehension from losing his team. And even the heroic ending. Like I said, you will accurately be able to guess where every storyline and every character is heading because you’ve seen them all long before. You might even call the film Top Gun with fins or Kevin Costner Returns to the Water (and just when you thought it was safe to go back in).
And yet the film works. It’s a sturdy, no-frills genre movie that goes about its business in a respectable manner. I may have known every turn but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. The characters are a bit rote, but the harrowing situations they thrust themselves into and their sense of heroism was very affecting. The story is familiar but the demands of the genre almost require a familiarity for success. The Guardian isn’t going to change the world (it will definitely increase Coast Guard recruit numbers), but it’s more than suitable entertainment for a weary moviegoer let down by bigger, louder Hollywood fare and looking for something more adult.
When it comes to genre movies, great acting and great writing can elevate the material. I found the details about how exactly the Coast Guard goes about rescues to be interesting, and the movie is effective at filling in the minutia of this life. I learned a lot of things about the Coast Guard and was impressed with what they go through, despite the misconceptions and dismissals. There is intelligence to the illustration of this world, and the dialogue often has a certain snap to it. Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) stages high excitement on the seas with great editing and seamless use of CGI.
Make no mistake about it; The Guardian is definitely tilted to an older audience. It’s a bit of a familiar, old-fashioned story and it doesn’t come close to rocking any boat, but it’s also a durable movie that plugs in the needs of this formula effectively and satisfying. This is a movie that will appeal to dads and granddads and, who knows, may get them to tear up. It’s hard to dislike a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and has such affection and reverence for those in harm’s way. It’s harder when the story, mountain of clichés and all, still resonates with semi-palpable emotion.
There is one very big misstep at the conclusion of the movie. I won’t go into great spoiler detail, but the film leaves you in two positions: 1) the ludicrous notion that something we saw minutes ago did not happen, or 2) a somewhat sappy but too-detailed-to-come-across-as-coincidence puzzler. All The Guardian had to do is trim a few words or made its final lines of dialogue a little more vague, then none of this would matter.
Costner seems to be settling into a nice second life as a middle age supporting actor. Here is an actor that’s had his share of setbacks and creative wounding (The Postman?), and yet he’s still immensely likeable when he turns on the grit and aw-shucks determination. He’s the film’s mentor and father figure and infuses a lot of personality into what could have come across as an idol of worship rather than a human being. After a sublimely laid back performance in The Upside of Anger, and now this, it looks like Costner is back on track and well over dud territory.
Kutcher is a mystery to me. I’ve mostly found this kid to be grating and overdoing his one-note joke of a dimwit persona. The Guardian is the first film where I’ve begrudgingly found myself enjoying a Kutcher performance. He’s got the physique for hard duty but he finally gets a chance to flex some acting muscle as well. While I won’t say he opened my eyes to the talent behind one half of Dude, Where’s My Car?, I will concede he’s worthy of taking a chance on in upcoming dramas. Don’t let me down Kutcher now that I’ve gone out on a limb for you, boy. Don’t punk me.
The Guardian is in a lot of ways very similar to Ladder 49, another fawning tribute to brave first responders. Whereas Ladder 49 idolized firefighters to the point of worship, The Guardian does a better job of molding penetrating characters. I think firefighters and rescue swimmers are heroes, obviously, but I find their courage and selflessness more admirable when we don’t place them on a pedestal. When we don’t make our heroes into something super-human that makes their decisions and acts that much greater.
I’ve been to few movies where the audience broke out in applause at the end credits. This was one of them. I could understand why. The Guardian is a familiar formula aimed at older adults and reminds them of the sacrifice and heroism of those who keep us safe. This flick is an adoring testament but also succeeds as a respectable, mostly engaging genre piece that manages to be emotionally involving without getting too sappy. It’s a meat-and-potatoes male weepie. Costner and Kutcher create a solid father-son bond and both actors reveal a bit more about themselves. This isn’t a movie that dares to reinvent the wheel, but it is worth a spin if you’re a fan of this genre and don’t mind reworking old clichés into something new.
Nate?s Grade: B-