What makes one man stand out among the rest? And for that matter, what makes a film? There's no shortage of "training" movies, where a seasoned veteran mentors a young rookie. Some of them sag and drag, while others seem by-the-numbers, and still others manage to muscle their way ahead of the pack to be entertaining in spite of the formula and clichés that tend to make any genre familiar.
What got me thinking about this was "The Guardian," which received mixed reviews. Here's what we know we'll get in a film like this: competition or tension between the trainer and the trainee, plenty of scenes showing the grueling regimen that gives the trainee a chance to rise above the pack of other recruits, subplots or back stories about the problems the characters each face in their personal lives to make us care whether they succeed or fail, some romantic entanglement (usually), and a climax in which everyone is tested. Will the trainee rise to the real challenge after excelling under simulated conditions?
It doesn't matter whether it's a Western, thriller, slasher flick, romantic comedy, or sports film. When you deal with a recognizable genre you're going to have some recognizable conventions that have become a part of that genre. What makes a film rise above that?
Well, the script, first and foremost. You can have the greatest actors in the world onboard, but if the lines are cardboard and the director doesn't give them room to improvise, you're going to get a final product that feels clichéd and lackluster. Though the structure and conventions are familiar, the dialogue in "The Guardian" is believable enough that for the span of 139 minutes we're willing to forget that these are actors mouthing lines.
When you have actors with charisma and purpose, not bland SAG-members picking up a paycheck, you also get a film that transcends the genre. Both Kevin Costner (as Randall, the top Coast Guard rescue swimmer of all-time) and Ashton Kutcher (as Fischer, the talented-but-cocky heir apparent who breaks all of Randall's training camp records) are charismatic enough to hold our interest.
Then there's the events themselves. I just body-slammed "Gridiron Gang" in a recent review because every single play, every single training scene, every single game situation was something we've already seen before--no variation whatsoever. Here, though, I have to admit that the training exercises themselves weren't just devices to move the plot forward or ways to illustrate character. Yes, they told us about Randall and Fischer, but the scenes themselves were also interesting. Whether it was watching the recruits pushing cinder blocks across a pool or supporting them as they were stacked on top of a rescue basket while they were treading water, this wasn't something I'd seen before. Same with Randall's lesson on hypothermia. Why go by the book and tell them about the stages, when you can jump in an iced-down pool with them and experience all those stages? There's some clap clap clap "Hoo-rah" here, but it's unique moments like these that make the training sequences nearly as enjoyable to watch as the actual moments of peril and attempted rescue.
Yes, the romantic interest and character subplots are awfully familiar--the hard-drinking veteran with the troubled marriage that we've seen in "Backdraft" and so many other films, and the cocky "Top Gun" style camaraderie that leads to a hook-up between Kutcher and love-interest Melissa Sagemiller. But we'll accept a little familiarity when there's enough action and interest elsewhere that are done so well. The towering waves in the rescue sequences set (but not filmed) off of Kodiak, Alaska are as "perfect" a storm as you'll see on your television sets, and the special effects look totally real and fabulous on Blu-ray. I enjoyed this one, as did my wife.
Boy, Blu-ray sure looks great with disaster films. The waves look menacingly real, and every detail is so super-realistically clear that it heightens the effect. The picture is presented in 1080p Hi Def at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio that fills out the full screen of 16x9 televisions. Even some of the bonus features are in 1080p and 1080i High Definition. The colors look natural and there's strong enough black levels to pull out plenty of detail, even in nighttime situations (of which there are plenty). What more can I say? It's just a nice, nice picture.
The audio is even stronger, with the feature option a 5.1 uncompressed PCM Dolby Digital, and alternate soundtracks in standard English, French, and Dolby Digital 5.1. Every splash and sway comes across on the speakers, and there's so much rear-speaker action in the action scenes that you feel surrounded by water . . . and impending disaster. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish, with the bonus features also available in English SDH.
Here's a bonus for PS3 owners and PC owners with compatible software: a filmmaker Q/A that's only available through those media. I don't have either, so I can't comment. But I can tell you that the main feature--a commentary with director Andrew Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff--is pretty standard. It's solid, but nothing earthshakingly memorable comes out.
Also included are two short features, "Making Waves" and "Unsung Heroes" that focus on the huge effort it took to create those real-looking special effects and some information on the heroes that inspired this film. We're told that out of all the people in the Coast Guard across the nation, there are only 280 rescue swimmers. Talk about an elite breed. Both of the features are quite good, and really help you appreciate the film all the more.
Rounding out the bonus features are an alternate ending and four deleted scenes, each playable with or without commentary. Let's just say that for the way the film ended, I thought the director made the right call.
No one will mistake "The Guardian" for a classic film. It doesn't rise above the conventions enough for that. But it's a solid entry in the mentor/trainee genre that presents characters we care about and breathtaking action sequences.