Many is the time that Hollywood has fallen at the feet of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. With the release of "The Guardian," now the Coast Guard, too, gets a lunkheaded cinematic offering all its own.
Part recruitment film (the Guard's good work during Katrina is touted), part rehash of countless wounded mentor flicks, "The Guardian" features a few exciting scenes in which brave servicemen battle the computer-enhanced elements to save lives. Otherwise it is about as unpredictable as the Pledge of Allegiance.
The movie takes us deep, deep into the until-now underexposed world of Coast Guard rescue swimmers, an elite group with its own training school, its own testosterone-saturated jargon (when officers want recruits to spring to their feet they shout, "Pop tall!"), and its own living legend, Ben Randall, embodied by Kevin Costner. He's an aging diver with countless saves to his name, but his single-minded dedication to his vocation prompts his long-suffering wife (Sela Ward) to walk out on him. "It's time for me to rescue myself," she quips. No chance she'll take you with her.
To cap his misery, Randall is involved in a disastrous rescue attempt that goes fatally awry. His CO orders him down to Louisiana to run the training program, or, as they say in the Coast Guard, to "download that epic resumé where it will do some good." Enter Ashton Kutcher, a green recruit and former champion swimmer determined to take the service by storm, but who hasn't counted on running up against someone like Costner's Randall. For the older man, the physical training is just an adjunct to the spiritual discipline demanded by the group's motto: "So others may live." He's convinced Kutcher is in it for the glory. The pair spend about half of this overlong film circling each other menacingly, but in every frame Costner's impressively craggy face, which seems to have been brined in equal parts machismo and sanctity, proclaims his superiority to the smirking, smooth-skinned neophyte.
Much of "The Guardian" seems insecurely defensive, as if geared to overcoming an anticipated reluctance on the part of the audience to see the work of the Coast Guard as heroic. As Costner says of sailors in the Navy, who refer to the swimmers contemptuously as "puddle pirates": "They think they're better than us because they're combat-oriented." The fact is, though, that being "combat-oriented" probably does make soldiers and sailors better material for movies, at least for movies as mindless and plot-driven as this one.
The movie tries hard to bring out the arduousness of the training program, for example, but it doesn't really work. Something about swimming pools renders them unfit settings for high drama. Treading water, or pushing cinder blocks along under water, or holding objects aloft and being hosed down while treading water all doubtlessly help swimmers carry out their noble jobs, but they don't translate into thrilling images. In mute and somewhat desperate acknowledgment of this fact, director Andrew Davis tries to jazz things up by giving some sequences the look of homemade video, with little arrows and the word "play" in the corner, and so on.
Among the many movies haunting this one, the cheesy "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982), itself a rehash of shopworn conventions, stands out, and nowhere is that more evident than in the new film's halfhearted, perfunctory attempt to endow Kutcher's character with a love life. In a tired reprise of the Richard Gere-Debra Winger romance, a perky elementary school teacher (Melissa Sagemiller) catches Kutcher's eye, but keeps him at arm's length emotionally because she knows the cadets are fly-by-nights who just want to sample the local talent. Unlike Winger's character, she's no factory worker; she peppers her flirtatious banter with coy allusions to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Will Kutcher march into her class at the end, soundtrack blaring, to save her from a life of nontoxic paste and safety scissors? Only time will tell.
Of course the relationship the film really cares about is the one between Costner and Kutcher, and in the final act the two are sent together into the sea, where the various permutations of who can rescue whom are dutifully evoked. It's competent, stiffly noble and telegraphed well in advance in almost every detail. If this film starts a trend, the Boy Scouts should prepare for their day of glory. (PG-13) 136 min. *** S