(PG-13) Three stars
The Guardian is probably going to be a big hit. The film is a slick piece of work, following the An Officer and a Gentleman template as it celebrates United States Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers, a noble group that certainly deserves to be honored.
Don’t expect any depth or innovation here, however; this one was designed to be a crowd-pleaser. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, though it would have been nice if something — anything — unexpected took place during the 136-minute production. Then again, clichés become clichés because they work.
The biggest difference between The Guardian and An Officer and a Gentleman is the obligatory romance between the rebellious trainee and the tart-tongued local girl. Where the love story between Richard Gere and Debra Winger was memorable, the one here seems almost incidental. Will the kids end up together in the end? Maybe, but it doesn’t really matter that much one way or the other. The relationship that really counts here is the one between the cocky son and the hard to please father, er … make that the cocky recruit and the hard to please instructor.
Ashton Kutcher plays the brash kid and Kevin Costner plays the world-weary father figure. Kutcher is fine, especially in the latter part of the film where he gets to show a wider range of emotions. Costner is rock solid, of course. Sure, he can do a role like this with one lip tied behind his back, but it’s still a pleasure to watch him work (especially when he’s not playing iconic loners in post-apocalyptic epics).
Most of the story takes place at the Coast Guard’s “A” School for Rescue Swimmers. Ben Randall (Costner), a living legend in the rescue swimmer community, has been assigned to a head teaching post following a disaster at sea that cost the lives of his crewmates. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his wife Helen (Sela Ward), sick of playing second fiddle to the job, has left him. So Ben is cranky. Go figure.
Enter a new group of recruits, who are promptly reminded that the training is so tough that more than 50 percent of the candidates drop out. Front and center in the class is Jake Fisher (Kutcher), a former high school hotshot swimmer with plenty of bold words and a hint of a smirk. On his first day, Jake’s cockiness causes Ben to become even crankier, and so the rebellious son/disapproving father relationship begins.
Let’s take a moment and picture a world where fathers and sons get along, consistently treating each other with respect, consideration and unconditional love. Imagine all the movies that would never have been made in that world — including Costner’s own Field of Dreams. Scary, huh?
Ah, what else should I tell you? There is an aforementioned romance between Jake and local girl Emily Thomas (Melissa Sagemiller), but they are cautious in their emotional investments and the relationship carries little weight. Jake’s fellow recruits have their own stories, but they are all given short shrift. Costner’s Ben Randall is surrounded by some fine actors, including John Heard, wolf-eyed Neal McDonough and the great Clancy Brown. What a shame they don’t get to do anything. Only singer Bonnie Bramlett gets to shine, stealing scenes as a warm, good-humored, well-traveled singer who runs a local music club.
It all boils down to father and son figures Costner and Kutcher, coupled with numerous training scenes and a few big rescues. Wish it was more, but The Guardian works for what it is. One last complaint, though: At the very end of the film — a movie that constantly reinforces the unforgiving life and death realities that rescue swimmers deal with every day — an attempt is made to add a mythic element to the story. What a bad idea.