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MOVIE REVIEW

Dull story sinks 'The Guardian'

By far the most powerful moment in ``The Guardian" comes at the end, when Kevin Costner drops Ashton Kutcher on the runway in front of Ashton's private jet. Things between them had been rough, what with Ashton's diva-driven tantrums and Kevin's stoic determination to keep his famous client safe from the crazed killer hired to blow him up -- at the Oscars. The airport scene is their goodbye. Ashton, wearing a head scarf that whips in the breeze, thanks Kevin for saving him. Kevin walks away. He hasn't gotten too far, when Ashton calls out after him, running down the steps, along the jetway, and into Kevin's arms, while on the soundtrack Ashton's version of Dolly Parton's --

All right, you caught me. Ashton Kutcher does not wear a head scarf in ``The Guardian." And even though Kevin Costner gives the same performance, the movie is not a redo of ``The Bodyguard." But at 135 minutes, it's about as emotionally runny.

``The Guardian" tells us what it takes to make it as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. (Or tries to, since I'm still not really sure. Lots of crunches?) The Coast Guard is an indispensable arm of the American military that gets no love from the movies -- it's all Army, Navy, Marines, all the time. As one guardsman puts it, ``We're Coast Guard. Nobody really appreciates us till they need us." If only the appreciation didn't take so long, and weren't so dull.

Kutcher is Jake Fischer, one of a handful of aspiring rescue swimmers. Costner is Ben Randall, the grizzled legend who takes an instructor's job after he loses his entire team in a storm. Ben has survivor's guilt, post-traumatic stress, and a crumbling marriage. Sela Ward plays the wife, and in a movie career littered with thankless wife parts, this is surely her most thankless yet.

Since he's played by Kutcher, Jake is a knucklehead. Obviously the most talented recruit, he's also the cockiest. On his first day of training, he vows to smash all Ben's old swimming records. Ben reciprocates with unorthodox drills, demanding that his students spend extended sessions treading water and prolonged time in a tank at below-freezing temperatures.

Screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff gives Jake a bland local teacher (Melissa Sagemiller) to dote on, then disappoint, and a three-time flunkee (Brian Geraghty) to motivate. But we never get a reasonable psychological profile of a rescue swimmer. What draws a person to such a tough job? If you believe the movie, it's grief and guilt.

Director Andrew Davis is a veteran of action thrillers (``Under Siege," ``The Fugitive," ``Collateral Damage"), and he usually thrives with a plot, however ridiculous, that he can speed along. ``The Guardian" is bookended by two technically complex rescue sequences, but the movie sorely lacks momentum. So it's up to the cast to transport us, and that doesn't happen either.

Age has ripened Costner into a wiser figure. But moping, self-pity, and martyrdom don't become him at all. The point of all this solemnity may be to pay serious respect to those rescue swimmers, who courageously look after errant kayakers or victims of Hurricane Katrina.

But what we get in exchange is a movie that feels too much like a Coast Guard recruitment film. Who wants to pay to see that?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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