Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is a legend in the United States Coast Guard. Holding every record for swimming and rescues, he is the first one they call when people need to be rescued in the Bering Sea, near his home base of Kodiak, Alaska. But his wife, Helen (Sela Ward, “The Fugitive”, “The Day After Tomorrow”) is tired of coming in second and walks out on him. After a particularly harrowing rescue, in which only Ben survives, his Commander asks him to take a position training the new recruits in Seattle. He reluctantly agrees. On his first day there, he meets one of the new students, Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a high school swim meet champ. Randall’s methods are unorthodox and he doesn’t make any friends among the other teachers. But it is a tough job and he can’t, in all conscience, send someone out there who will not present the best face of the Coast Guard or be able to rescue people. As Goldfish (Kutcher), his nickname from Randall, goes through the grueling training program, he meets an elementary school teacher (Melissa Sagemiller), who recognizes he will be gone in 18 weeks and doesn’t want to get too attached, and she’s been through this before. Will Goldfish make it through Randall’s tough training program? Will Randall be able to exercise the demons of that rescue during which his friend and his crew died? Will Fisch learn to be a member of the team?
“The Guardian”, aka “Top Gun II”, “Top Gun on Water” or “Top Gun Water Wings”, directed by Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”) is not a terrible film. It is entertaining and interesting, at turns, and there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours. But the film’s predictability and ludicrous ending serve to bring it down a couple of notches beyond acceptable programmer.
Davis, the director of “The Fugitive”, one of my favorite films of all time, has floundered a bit since this landmark film was released. His follow-up was a film called “Chain Reaction”, starring Keanu Reeves as a Nuclear Scientist (okay, stop laughing) and Morgan Freeman. Basically, a retread of the best elements of “The Fugitive” with less than convincing acting, the film was a hollow follow-up. Since then, he has directed “Collateral Damage”, “Holes” and now returns with “The Guardian”.
Davis manages to maintain our interest through most of the film, but I suspect a large part of this may have to do with our lack of knowledge about this branch of the Armed Forces. We watch as Fisch and his crew goes through a rigorous training exercise and we also watch a couple of strenuous, dangerous rescues. We haven’t seen a lot of this, so it maintains our interest. He is also good at developing the relationship between Randall and Fisch, as stereotypical as it is. Throughout, Randall needles the hotshot recruit and when we finally learn of his ‘secret’, it provides a touching moment and makes us feel for him a little more.
Kevin Costner is serviceable as the tough, over the hill rescue swimmer who resents he has to take a teaching position and takes it out on his new recruits. As he begins to accept the job, he becomes a tough instructor, ticking off the other instructors. “You can’t do that.” “He was a top recruit”. This is basically the same role Louis Gossett, Jr. made so memorable in “An Office and a Gentlemen”. Strangely, there is even a scene between Randall and Fisch which is almost a complete duplicate of a famous scene in “Gentleman”. As a punishment, Randall gets Fisch in a pool and sprays water on his while he holds water bottles over his head. Randall shouts “Why are you here, Fisch?” Fisch spouts out one jingoistic military line after another, trying to convince the instructor he belongs.
Ashton Kutcher, who appears in two films opening this weekend (he also provides one of the voices in the animated “Open Season), also does a serviceable job. Clearly trying to use this role to catapult him out of the dopey romantic comedy dungeon he currently resides, he is hoping to fashion a career as an action-adventure star. More buff and with shorter hair, he could possibly pull it off. The performance is corny, and we have seen it before, but this often proves to be the easiest route to change; appear in something familiar, to show them you can do it. He manages the dramatic and romantic scenes with equal ease, at times injecting humor into the role. But the role isn’t as jokey as you might expect from him.
Sela Ward plays Randall’s ex-wife and her role here is a combination of her other two well-received film roles. In “The Fugitive”, she played Harrison Ford’s murdered wife, appearing in flashback a couple of times as Ford remembered her fondly, or learned details of her murder. In “The Day After Tomorrow”, she basically was required to stand by and watch newscasts or listen to her ex-husband’s (Dennis Quaid) progress as he made his way from frozen New York to the warmer Southwest, with their son (Jake Gyllenhaal). In “The Guardian”), she breaks up with Ben, yet they both still love each other. Then, there are a couple of scenes as she either sits by Ben’s hospital bed or as she ignores phone calls from him. It is nice to see Ward in a feature film. She is a very good actress, as we have seen from her television work, but she deserves better, meatier roles.
The film is clearly an attempt to create for the Coast Guard what “Top Gun” did for the Navy. Basically, a two hour recruitment poster. The only thing missing is the volleyball game with Kutcher and his fellow recruits wearing sunglasses and a suntan as they battle it out. There are a lot of shots of the recruits working through a strenuous training program, set to music, to make their own self-contained music video. Strangely, the film goes more of a jazz route, with a couple of scenes set at a bar, with a jazz trio playing in the background and Randall friend’s with the bar’s proprietor, and old Jazz singer. I don’t think this will bring the expected audience, but it was a nice change of pace.
Unfortunately, this is the type of film that practically telegraphs the climatic moments to you throughout. Every time Costner’s Randall says something prophetic, or imbues some piece of wisdom to the recruits and Fisch, you know they will have to use this information. Every time one of the characters talks about what a hero Randall is, and why, you know that Fisch will have to use those same skills in the film’s closing moments. Every time one of the characters talks about a particularly horrible rescue in Randall’s career, you know that Fisch will have to learn from his mentor’s past and his mentor’s mistakes. Basically, you pretty much know what will happen before it happens, robbing the film of a lot of suspense.
If that weren’t bad enough, the film has easily one of the most ludicrous endings I have seen in a long time. During the opening moments of the film, Costner’s voice tells us of a legend. Based on what I have already said, what do you think happens in the end? Yes, Kutcher’s voice provides a few more details of the legend and asks us to make a huge leap of faith. Basically, this turns the story into a fairy tale of sorts and robs the film of any emotional impact it may have had, because we were able to suspend belief and believe we were watching real people in the Coast Guard. This little story turn was a bad, bad idea and a huge misstep on the parts of the filmmakers.
“The Guardian” will not exactly reach the level of pop icon that “Top Gun” reached; it doesn’t contain enough sex, buff bodies, or pulsing music. But it is a more interesting, believable film. At least until that ending. Sheeesssshhhhh!