A part of me wants you to endure The Guardian just so we can bond over the howler of an ending, when Ashton Kutcher's Coast Guard rookie has a moment of realization and we're expected to believe that -- well, I don't want to say what we're expected to believe, in case you really do decide to see this movie. But, geez, it's hilarious, though that's not the intent.
But only Evil Richie would suggest you actually see The Guardian. Richie your movie-loving friend is advising against it, unless you're in the mood for a Coast Guard version of Top Gun crossed with a dumbed-down, cornier version of An Officer and a Gentleman, with Kevin Costner in the Louis Gossett Jr. role and Ashton Kutcher doing the Richard Gere thing. There's a scene where Costner's Coast Guard instructor is putting Kutcher's brash student through a series of torturous drills while advising him to quit, and it's such a ripoff of An Officer and a Gentleman that I thought Kutcher was going to cry, "I got no place else to go!" and we were going to hear "Up Where We Belong" on the soundtrack.
If only. Had that happened, we'd know The Guardian is an actual parody, when the hard truth is that despite the good intentions, it's an earnest but mostly dreadful action melodrama with more false endings than The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. I swear, I was out of my seat three times thinking (hoping?) it was over, only to get another epilogue.
With his thinning pate and his crinkly smile and his world-weary self-deprecation, Kevin Costner has settled into a comfortable middle-aged screen presence, giving underrated performances in films such as Rumor Has It and The Upside of Anger, but he's just repeating himself here as Ben Randall, a legendary Coast Guard rescue swimmer who is temporarily assigned to an instructor gig after his team is killed during a mission in the waters of Alaska.
(Judging by the number of fatal and near-fatal fishing boat accidents, kayaking mishaps and other sailing disasters, the Bering Strait must be more dangerous than Iraq or outer space.)
Randall becomes the lead instructor at the Coast Guard's school for elite rescue swimmers -- the best of the best, the men and women who dive in when everybody else is retreating.
Kutcher is mostly famous for That '70s Show and that fortysomething wife, Demi Moore. As a film actor, he's Freddie Prinze Jr. without the gravitas. From Just Married to My Boss's Daughter to Guess Who to A Lot Like Love, his cinematic repertoire consists of smirking and having really good hair in execrable comedies. I liked his work in The Butterfly Effect, but I was the only one. Literally.
In The Guardian, the 28-year-old Kutcher plays Jake Fischer, a teenaged swimming star who has turned down Ivy League scholarships because he wants to save lives by fishing people out of the sea. (His name is Fischer, get it?) But despite those stated intentions, the cocky Fischer is all about breaking speed records in the pool and sneaking out of the barracks at midnight so he can hook up with a local schoolteacher (Melissa Sagemiller), who tells him she has no interest in a quickie romance with a Coast Guard hotshot -- and then tumbles into bed with him about seven minutes later. The dialogue between Kutcher and Sagemiller, which feels improvised (and I mean that in a bad way), is so lame and trite it makes the Tom Cruise/Kelly McGillis banter in Top Gun sound like Annie Hall.
The Guardian religiously follows the Officer and a Gentleman blueprint. We get lots of training sequences, with officers screaming at the candidates as they endure rigorous tests of stamina and bravery. There's the romance between the talented rebel student and the town girl, who says they should keep things casual because she doesn't want to get her hopes up.
The class of candidates includes the obligatory runt of the litter, who's never gonna pass that one test, unless he gets some help from the hotshot, who's gradually learning that the Coast Guard is all about the team and not individual glory. And when Fischer and a fellow candidate hit a local watering hole, what do you think the chances are they're going to wind up in a brawl?
At the heart of it all is the father-son relationship between the grizzled Randall and the brash Fischer; but whereas Gossett and Gere in Officer overcame their differences to forge a bond based on mutual respect, Randall doesn't just take Fischer under his wing; he essentially adopts the kid.
To say the other characters suffer is an understatement. In fact, one -- an attractive rescue swimmer candidate played by Shelby Fenner -- simply disappears from the movie. At graduation time, she's nowhere to be found, but there is another young woman onstage. What happened to Shelby? Did she get another acting gig?
The Guardian is directed by Chicago's Andrew Davis, who helmed The Fugitive, one of the best action films of the last quarter-century. He knows how to stage elaborate rescue sequences, and we get about a half-dozen of them, all involving heroic Coast Guard swimmers trying to save lives in the most treacherous conditions imaginable, with waves pounding and fires burning and ships sinking. They're all very well done, but not very exciting. There are only so many ways you can show people gasping for breath while rescue swimmers try to plunk them into those baskets so they can be raised up to the helicopter.
Still, The Guardian isn't the worst aqua-themed movie of Kevin Costner's career. Not with Waterworld in his rearview mirror.