Since he was eight years old, Judge Brett Cullum has believed that a mermaid rescued him in the ocean. That has nothing to do with the movie, but it makes a nice counterpoint, don't you think?
Jake Fischer: There is a legend of a man under the sea. A fisher of men. He is called the guardian.
The Guardian is a Valentine to the brave men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard. Most people will recognize the helicopters and rescue swimmers from hurricane Katrina, where this arm of the military made an amazing impact saving people trapped in high and rising water. The film paints a heroic canvas and pairs up the unlikely duo of Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. If you love well done sea rescue sequences, a formulaic military story, and an uplifting message of what makes a hero, here's a good Sunday afternoon flick.
Facts of the Case
Legendary rescue swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner, Bull Durham) mourns a mission gone wrong where he loses everyone including his team members and best friend. Randall's superior officers assign him to a teaching job where he is responsible for training raw recruits to become U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers. Among his new charges is the young cocky Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher, The Butterfly Effect), a former swimming champ with a painful secret. Can Ben Randall teach Fischer how to work on a team, and break him down to deal with his past? Will teaching heal Ben's scars from both his failed mission and broken marriage to his estranged wife (Sela Ward, The Fugitive)?
The Guardian is a movie that works extremely well on many levels, but then falls into familiar traps along the way. It achieves two significant things that make it a movie worth checking out. The Guardian's rescue sequences are well done with seamless special effects and a realistic edge. It also does a great job showing the Coast Guard in a positive light with a truthful slant provided by input from the military. The action in the water works like gangbusters, and I wished the editing had been so tight the whole movie would only consist of the thrilling rescues and relentless training. These sequences work, and they throb with suspense and believable action.
Water becomes a major character, as most of the dramatic action revolves around either training for or completing dangerous daring rescues at sea. Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) pulls on his cinematographer background to make things look convincingly dramatic and beautiful simultaneously. It feels real even though the bulk of the scenes were filmed in a tank in Louisiana and not in the Baltic Sea. There is a brilliant blending of CGI and real life footage that effectively creates the world of The Guardian. It's something we haven't seen in a movie before outside of The Perfect Storm, and there's a hell of a lot more action here than in that one. Davis and his production makes for a stunning view of storms and pools that is groundbreaking and unique. If you want to hear more about this aspect, check out the DVD podcast released on January 19th of 2007 that interviews Andrew Davis (see Accomplices for a link).
On DVD The Guardian flourishes, perhaps better than it did in the theater, with the help of the supplemental material. It looks fine with a widescreen transfer with several challenges facing it. Much of the film is underwater or in dark settings, and the disc handles black levels and details easily. Colors look a touch drained, but there aren't many problems with the transfer which comes across as solid but not impressive. Surround sound kicks in during the rescue scenes, while the rest of the movie utilizes a front channel emphasis. Crashing waves and explosions sound good in surround, although I wished we had more occasion to utilize the full field. Extras are incredibly well done. Included is an alternate ending that changes the entire tone of the finale. Thankfully it wasn't ever used, but it is here for viewers to see what studios request which could undermine a film's purpose. If it had been tacked on as the official ending, the title wouldn't even make sense. There are a handful of deleted scenes, as well as a good look at how the film was constructed. The feature on "Unsung Heroes" provides an essential look at real rescue swimmers. The director and screenwriter commentary proves entertaining, and does a nice job imparting what was intended for the production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You have two actors leading the production seeking to redefine themselves with The Guardian. Kevin Costner strives to reestablish himself as an attractive older action star who can carry off drama. Ashton Kutcher wants to distance himself from his That '70s Show and Punk'd clown image, and finally be taken seriously as a real actor. They both acquit themselves well, but do not completely achieve what they need to. Costner comes off slightly subdued, and we're not completely invested in his struggles which seem removed. Kutcher appears a bit lost when his character has to be unlikable or angry and serious. His goofy charm from previous roles seeps into this one now and then. They make a nice duo when you look at them, but they make an odd couple when you compare the weaknesses. Costner is too reserved, while Kutcher is too much of a live wire.
At two hours and twenty minutes The Guardian runs overlong with false ending after false ending stretching out the final act. The Officer and a Gentleman familiar plot is overloaded with angst from both lead actors seeming to put too much onto the plate of the narrative. There's way too much going on, and the long stretches of tying threads together undermines where the film works best which are the action sequences. A tight editor could have made The Guardian more effective by becoming faster moving and still hard hitting.
The Guardian is a flawed feature, but overcomes its shortcomings in certain stretches. It's definitely worth a look for the incredible rescue scenes and unique training of an under championed military branch. The aquatic scenes are thrilling from pools to the Baltic Sea. It feels completely real when it springs into the action. The problem is the drama out of the water bogs the picture down, and damn near sinks it. The running time is too long to make it successful as a picture, and the multiple endings undermine the narrative arc. It is a salute to the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, and for that it does a nice job. If anything makes me admire the film, it's how well it illustrates the level of commitment real rescue swimmers have to uphold every day of their careers. It makes for a great rainy Sunday rental when you feel you've had far too much water in your life. The people who will want to purchase the DVD are those that love military training dramas, although you may feel you own this title already under another name since it recycles many stories that have come before it.
Guilty of being a predictable, overly long military training drama with some awesome rescue scenes. The Guardian is sentenced to 160 push-ups in 120 seconds to learn about pacing, and the importance of moving as quickly as the real rescue swimmers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Commentary with Director Andrew Davis and Writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff
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