Fri, Oct 27, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Costner is back in the water and swimming hard

'The Guardian' tries to be too many things at once, and sinks under the burden

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Kevin Coster, right, reprises the role of the gruff but kind-hearted instructor to Ashton Kutcher's precocious student in The Guardian.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BVI/SONY

Compared with the other branches of the US military, the Coast Guard has been underrepresented in American movies, no doubt because its missions do not involve combat, which is after all the staple of military cinema. The Guardian, made in cooperation with and in celebration of the Coast Guard, seems to have been produced with the intention of making up the deficit all at once.

Weighing in at over two hours soaking wet, it sometimes feels like five pictures in one and therefore piles up multiple endings. The Guardian, emphatically directed by Andrew Davis from a script by Ron L. Brinkerhoff, is an action movie, a basic training movie, a swaggering sea adventure, a home front melodrama and an inspiring tough-love heroic teacher fable. If the aggregate of all these movies is exhausting and occasionally overwrought, some of the parts are stirring and effective, though not exactly fresh.

You might have thought that, after the debacle of Waterworld more than a decade ago, Kevin Costner would be loath to leave dry land. But like his character, Ben Randall, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Costner just can't stay out of the drink.

At the beginning of The Guardian Ben is stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, where his job is to leap from a helicopter to swim after unlucky souls who have been swept into the cold, churning waters of the Bering Sea. Ben's love for his work has strained his marriage, and he arrives home from a live-saving mission to find his wife, Helen (Sela Ward), packing up to leave. "I need to work on rescuing myself," she says.

There are some more groaners where that one came from, but also some effective, pumped-up action sequences, with computer-generated waves and howling winds, most of them early and late in the film. Sandwiched between the big start and the big finishes is a paradigmatic Kevin Costner movie, in which he plays the crusty, world-weary but unshakably decent mentor to a hot-headed tyro, in this case Ashton Kutcher.

Film Notes:

The GuardianDirected by: Andrew DavisStarring: Kevin Costner (Ben Randall), Ashton Kutcher (Jake Fischer), Melissa Sagemiller (Emily Thomas), Bonnie Bramlett (Maggie McGlone), Clancy Brown (Capt. William Hadley), Sela Ward (Helen Randall), Neal McDonough (Jack Skinner), John Heard (Frank Larson), Brian Geraghty (Hodge), Dule Hill (Ken Weatherly), Shelby Fenner (Cate)Running time: 139 minutesTaiwan release: Today


Bruised by on-the-job trauma and the breakup of his marriage, Ben descends to the lower 48, where he becomes an instructor in the brutal training program for rescue divers, known as "A School."

Kutcher plays Jake Fischer, a former high school swimming champion with aviator shades and a self-satisfied smirk. Jake's first encounters with his teacher are a bit uncomfortable, but deep down the two men seem to know as well as the audience that each will learn some valuable lessons from the other. Jake will learn the value of sacrifice and teamwork — saving lives is not about personal glory — and Ben will learn not to give up on himself.

Or something like that. Costner is comfortable in this kind of role, perhaps too comfortable. The profane, leathery, sad-sack qualities of the character — his unorthodox teaching methods, his fondness for whiskey, his gruff manner — amount to a nearly transparent veneer smeared over his essential saintliness.

At one point, after a night of bonding and truth-telling, Jake apologizes to Ben for various failings. "Don't you have anything you want to say to me?" Jake asks, expecting an apology in return. But the older man just stares at him blankly. It's a funny moment, but also a revealing one, since there is nothing in The Guardian that suggests anything like real fallibility. In the movie's fifth and final ending, Ben's selfless goodness is pushed to the very edge of earthly heroism, as he becomes an almost theological figure.

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