|The Guardian (2006)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher, Dule Hill, Sela Ward, Clancy Brown
Director: Andrew Davis
The most important part of a movie is the ending. If it doesn’t feel satisfactory to the audience, it doesn’t matter a whit what came before it, the movie’s toast (see “Signs” or “Little Shop of Horrors"), if you must. The makers of “The Guardian,” perhaps sensing this, decided to give their movie three endings, presumably to cover all the emotional bases that endings are supposed to cover. We’ll never know the real reason, but I do know that the movie felt real, real long as a result of these three endings. Which is a shame, because when it’s working, the movie actually overcomes its trappings, Ashton Kutcher be damned.
Kevin Costner stars as Ben Randall, the best rescue diver the United States Coast Guard has ever known, though his dedication to his job has cost him his marriage to childhood sweetheart Helen (Sela Ward). When a horrific accident claims the lives of his crew, including his best friend, Ben’s supervising officer (Clancy Brown) gives him two choices for the short term: resign, or teach the academy for new recruits in Seattle. Ben grudgingly takes the teaching job, and his first class includes a cocky swimming prodigy named Jake (Kutcher), who makes no bones about owning all of Ben’s racing records. Ben isn’t exactly concerned about Jake beating his records, but decides to take Jake down a few pegs nonetheless, since the last thing a rescue diver can be is selfish. Jake perseveres despite his attitude, and even meets cute with local schoolteacher Emily (Melissa Sagemiller). From there are moments of insubordination, shocking revelation, triumph and sacrifice. Oh, and three endings.
Director Andrew Davis had a hell of a time following the mega-smash “The Fugitive,” slumming with projects like “Steal Big Steal Little,” “Chain Reaction,” and “Collateral Damage.” He righted the ship in 2003 with the underrated “Holes,” and gets his groove on big time here. While there’s no question that most of the water shots are in tanks, they look damn good, and that shot that follows the boat from the submerged bow out of the water to the stern is creepy-good. Costner is clearly having fun here, in full Crash Davis mode when dealing with his students, and it’s nice to see the guy get a break for a change. Kutcher, however, is a major problem. Costner just wipes the floor with him in every scene, to the point where you’re actually rooting for the teacher and not the student, which I believe is the opposite of how these “Officer and a Gentleman” movies are supposed to work. I’m not sure who Sagemiller is, but she was a welcome sight whenever she was onscreen, even if a punk like Jake/Kutcher was completely unworthy of her.
So yeah, those three endings. It was about one ending too many. Surely there was a way to fit all of those scenes and plot points into the movie without leading the audience into thinking they’re out of the water, only to get thrown back in again. It’s clear what kind of character arcs they were trying to draw, but they pushed their luck big time in terms of how much time they thought they had to draw them. The most obvious piece of fat is the training sequence, which is huuuuuuuge. Did we need the hypothermia lesson? The ‘your team pays for your mistakes’ scene? (Hello, “Annapolis,” as if I wanted to relive that movie again.) Brevity is the soul of wit, people. Only Grateful Dead fans want everything to be longer than it needs to be.
I must confess that I walked into “The Guardian” expecting to be bored, and was quite surprised at how enthralling a movie about rescue divers could be. (No offense, people; after all, I know full well that a movie about web site editors would be dull as dirt, too.) But the combination of an inexplicable length plus Kutcher’s inability to do drama kept it from reaching dizzier heights. Having said that, the movie is a success nonetheless, and I expect that it will be a big hit once the masses get to see it. Pity that it could have been a much bigger one with a little editing.
“The Guardian” may have flown well under the radar during its theatrical release, but it’s good to see that Buena Vista hasn’t slacked off in delivering a decent DVD. Along with a technical (but rather boring) audio commentary by director Andrew Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff, the single-disc release also features four deleted scenes (with optional commentary), an alternate feel-good ending and two featurettes: the 11-minute making-of documentary, “The Guardian: Making Waves,” and the tribute reel to the real-life Coast Guard rescuers of Hurricane Katrina (“Unsung Heroes”). You’ll even gain a little of respect for co-star Ashton Kutcher when you hear about his dedication to preparing for the role.