This is another in a long line of earnest, true-to-life stories from the Disney-Touchstone team, which, unfortunately, fails to provide enough content to compensate for its extreme length. Only the talents of Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher keep 2006's "The Guardian" afloat, maybe because there's only so much you can do to dramatize a series of sea rescues by the United States Coast Guard.
What we get in "The Guardian" are some thrilling scenes of the Coast Guard rescue swimmers saving lives, surrounded on all sides by traditional scenes of their messed-up personal lives, their disastrous social interactions, and their long months of rigorous training. Although Costner and Kutcher do their best to make the drama work, it's really the action sequences that function best, which are few and far between.
"The Guardian" is an ordinary movie about extraordinary people. The Coast Guard rescue swimmers deserve all the credit in the world, but this movie has no idea how to provide that credit beyond showing us a few moments of obvious heroics and filling in the rest the story with standard Hollywood hokum.
Costner stars as Senior Chief Ben Randall, a living legend among rescue swimmers, having saved more lives and established more records than any rescue swimmer in history. Costner is good at this sort of thing, having saved Chicago in "The Untouchables," saved the American West in "Dances With Wolves" and "Wyatt Earp," saved England in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," saved the oceans in "Waterworld," saved the mail delivery service in "The Postman," and, best of all, saved Whitney Houston in "The Bodyguard." Heck, after all that, saving a few hundred drowning folks at sea is a piece of cake. Seriously, Costner brings a sense of conviction to the role that makes him worth watching, even when he's not doing much, which is most of the time.
However, although saving the world has its own rewards, it has its downside, too. It causes Randall's marriage to fall apart, his wife (Sela Ward) convinced he's married to his job and not to her. At the beginning of the movie, she walks out on him. Furthermore, he's getting old for this kind of work, on top of which his best friend gets killed in a freak accident at sea, events that prompt his commanding officer (Clancy Brown) to order him to take it easy for a while. The CO reassigns Randall to the Aviation Survival Training School, where he is to spend a few months instructing young Coast Guard recruits to be "the best of the best" among rescue swimmers. Randall, who really is the best of the best, reluctantly agrees.
The second lead is Ashton Kutcher as Jake Fischer, a cocky young Coast Guard recruit among the small group of men and women Randall must teach. Fischer is a former high school swim champ with a chip on his shoulder and a desire to beat every one of Randall's old CG swim records, perhaps including lives saved. He, too, must be brash enough to contrast with Randall's ill temper, and he succeeds. He must also have a romantic interest, and he does in Emily Thomas (Melissa Sagemiller). The film overlooks no cliché.
The film's opening scenes establish Randall's credentials as an expert swimmer and heroic rescuer, as he jumps from a helicopter into a raging sea. These scenes are also fairly exciting, almost passionate compared to the rest of the movie. Director Andrew Davis ("Under Siege," "The Fugitive," "Collateral Damage," "Holes") stages these expository sequences well, photographs them expertly, and conveys them realistically. If the rest of the film had been as intense, we would have had something here.
Instead, after the opening minutes, the movie falls into routine theatrics. At well over two hours, the film is much too long for its subject matter, most of which concerns Randall's unorthodox training methods. We get far more minutes in the pool than are good for any of us; I was beginning to get shriveled goose bumps on my fingers by the time the movie was over.
Yes, after those first few minutes, "The Guardian" is predictable and by the book. I mean, you've got Randall trying to get his life back together; the arrogant youngster trying to prove his worth; the unconventional instruction; the conflict between the older man and the younger one; the usual romantic entanglements and bar fights; the rivalry between the Coast Guard and the Navy; and so on. It reminded me in this regard of "Annapolis," another Disney-Touchstone production, but at least "The Guardian" has Costner to carry it. And I'm not even going to remind you of "An Officer and a Gentleman." Oh. Sorry.
"The Guardian" strives to be as true-to-life as possible, but without the backdrop of some personal relationships it would be only a string of heroic rescue missions. So the screenplay provides the personal relationships, making it too much of a soap opera. I suppose the movie's challenges were a little too much for the filmmakers to overcome.
The movie concludes with Randall back on active duty with his old Coast Guard rescue team, and even here it goes on for much too long, the melodrama continuing almost to a tear. Good intent; poor execution.
The video engineers maintain most of the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in anamorphic dimensions that fill up a 16x9 widescreen television. The picture quality is often rather dark and a little rough in appearance, with a slightly grainy look to add to the film's gritty subject matter. The image is tad soft, too, and a touch glassy. Facial tones can more often than not seem too pink, too orange, or too yellow.
Hardly a thing to complain about in terms of sound. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio provides plenty of dynamic range and plenty of punch, with a strong deep bass and an all-encircling surround response. Moreover, the midrange balances well with the rest of the sound, so it renders dialogue clearly without having to keep turning the volume up and down. The audio impressed me and made me wish for more action scenes in which the sound might strut its stuff. When it's working to its full extent, the audio is almost as good as the sound in the SD-DVD version of "A Perfect Storm."
There is an above-average number of extras on the disc, although, to be honest, they are themselves of average quality, never quite providing anything we haven't seen or heard before. Things start off with an audio commentary by director Andrew Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff, pleasant enough fellows who provide a pleasant chat. After that we find four deleted scenes and a never-before-seen alternate ending, with optional comments from the director and writer. Then, there are two featurettes, "Unsung Heroes," a five-minute tribute to the real-life heroes of the U.S. Coast Guard, and "Making Waves," an eleven-minute, making-of segment on "The Guardian."
Things wrap up with a mere twelve scene selections, with a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at several more Buena Vista products; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in one of those keep cases with the annoying clasps on the side, so favored by BV and others, the case enclosed in an embossed, metal-foil slipcover.
You can't fault "The Guardian" for sincerity. As the epilogue says, the filmmakers dedicate it "to the men and women of the United States Coast Guard, 'so others may live.'" How can you knock that? But neither sincerity nor big-name stars are enough to save this mundane, by-the-numbers production from a watery grave. Its heart is in the right place; it just hasn't enough guts to keep us interested.