Many products today carry labels that read something along the lines of "100% recycled materials; post-consumer content varies." If the Motion Picture Assn. of America required such a disclaimer, "The Guardian," an action-drama pairing Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, would certainly merit one.
That's a shame, because within the formulaic template and sundry cliches borrowed from such films as "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Top Gun" and countless others celebrating the rigors of military training, there's the germ of a terrific movie that pays tribute to the unheralded rescue swimmers of the U.S. Coast Guard. While "The Guardian" certainly shines a deservedly adoring light on the USCG, it plays more like a two-hour-plus recruitment film than a truly rousing drama. It's entertaining enough but strictly in a wait-for-cable way.
The rescue swimmers are a heroic group of men and women who leap into dangerous situations to pluck imperiled seafarers from harm's way. Dropped from helicopters into the angry waters, the rescuer sometimes faces the unenviable task of playing God. As the movie's tagline asks, "How do you decide who lives or who dies?"
In the universe of "The Guardian," it's the filmmakers who decide which characters will live and which will die, but anyone with even a casual acquaintance of boilerplate moviemaking will know within the first few minutes for whom the bells will toll here. That said, screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff and veteran action director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") move along the pastiche relatively quickly, and the four rescue set pieces that bookend the movie are suitably thrilling. The movie is strongest when at sea but is unfortunately landlocked for the better part of its middle. It's also marred by some truly awful flashbacks that torment Costner's character leading up to the film's climactic scenes.
In terms of performances, Costner owns the movie with the type of role (like the one he played in "The Upside of Anger") that gracefully eases his career into middle age. It's a transitional part that combines the vigor and broad shoulders of a leading man with the quiet confidence of a wily character actor.
As Ben Randall, Costner is a veteran rescue swimmer whose legendary prowess has allowed him the privilege of remaining in the field while other men his age are moved to desk jobs. Stationed at Kodiak, Alaska, Randall makes the icy waters of the Bering Sea his office. The actor inhabits Randall with the weary physicality of a pitcher who's lost his fastball but is still able to get hitters out with hard-earned guile. He's well aware, however, that time is catching up with him.
To add insult to aching joints, Randall's wife, Helen (Sela Ward), leaves him when she tires of waiting for him to give up his job. A deadly accident involving his crew then lands him in the hospital, and he's temporarily assigned against his will to be the lead instructor at "A" School, the Coast Guard's elite training program in Louisiana.
The situation is reminiscent of that of Crash Davis, Costner's philosopher-catcher in "Bull Durham." Instead of refining diamond-in-the-rough pitcher Nuke LaLoosh for the big leagues, Randall is faced with preparing recruits for the life-and-death responsibilities of being a rescue swimmer. His project is Jake Fischer, a talented but cocky swim champion, played by Kutcher. The grizzled veteran mentoring the headstrong rookie and passing along the torch of wisdom is a well-worn Hollywood tradition and mirrors the attempt to gain Kutcher action-hero gravitas by teaming him with Costner.
In making the leap from television and romantic comedies, Kutcher, for the most part, acquits himself surprisingly well as Fischer. Buffed out to an athlete's build, he's believable as a championship-caliber swimmer and has an easygoing chemistry with Costner. He's less convincing late in the movie when he's called upon to be a leader and never really seems like a guy others would follow into the breach.
The actor is also saddled with an obligatory romance that simply serves as a way to get him out of the training pool once in a while. That story line could easily have been jettisoned (and with it eliminated at least one of the film endings) to allow more time to develop Fischer's comrades.
The overly familiar plot points also make the film feel a little dated, and it would not seem out of place among movies from Costner's late '80s, early '90s heyday when he was the rising star often paired with older actors such as Gene Hackman, Sean Connery and James Earl Jones. There's even a song by Bryan Adams over the end credits to give it a truly retro tone.
Recycling is generally a good thing, but in the movies a little goes a long way.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action/peril, brief strong language and some sensuality
A Buena Vista Pictures Distribution release. Director Andrew Davis. Producers Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson. Screenplay by Ron L. Brinkerhoff. Director of photography Stephen St. John. Editors Dennis Virkler, Thomas J. Nordberg. Visual effects supervisor William Mesa. Running time: 2 hour, 19 minutes.
In general release.