by Jim McFarlin
Any movie that can make Kevin Costner look heroic and Ashton Kutcher seem vulnerable is worthy of consideration, as in the new Hollywood water thrill ride with the woefully generic name, The Guardian.
With this intriguing pairing of Costner and Kutcher as hard-bitten, mission-weary veteran versus brash young recruit, we have two generations of the same basic leading man type: The snotty, privileged frat-boy maverick with a wink in his eye who always gets the girl (or beautiful older actress) in the end. You know, the kind of jerk you hated in college. While Costner should receive some sort of testosterone trophy for all he has done to advance the sports-movie genre, his last excursion into the salty depths 11 years ago with Waterworld was a soggy, overblown mess and one of the costliest box-office failures of the decade. As for Kutcher, well, Punk'd is an apt description of his big-screen performances to date.
Surprisingly, this film represents a high-water mark for both actors. The Guardian is a tribute to the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers (little known before Hurricane Katrina), an elite corps of divers who leap from helicopters often into deadly, tempestuous waters to rescue persons in distress. (This film should play especially well along Michigan's west coast around Grand Haven, the official "Coast Guard City, U.S.A.")
Costner is Ben Randall, a living legend among the swimming corps, a man who has rescued hundreds of victims but can't seem to save himself. His wife (the ever-elegant Sela Ward) is demanding a divorce, and his rugged machismo is shattered when he emerges as the lone survivor of a fiery Bering Sea chopper crash that kills the rest of his crew. To aid his physical and psychological recovery, Randall's commander orders him to take a stint as an instructor at the Coast Guard's "A" school for swimmers in training.
There Randall encounters Jake Fischer (Kutcher), a former high school swimming champ who's determined to break all Randall's squad records and carve a new legacy for himself. Predictably, teacher and student clash viscerally; you'll sniff traces of Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman and similar hits of the same military stripe (not necessarily a bad thing), particularly when Jake attempts a tenuous romance with a townie schoolteacher (Melissa Sagemiller) before revealing the dark secret that pushes him to excel.
Beyond the on-screen interaction between Costner and Kutcher, you'll be impressed by the sheer physicality of their roles as expert swimmers and the rescue scenes themselves, so realistic and riveting that you'll feel the water squishing in your socks. In fact, the only reason The Guardian doesn't earn a straight "A" here is because of its excessive length: At 139 minutes, by the time the final rescue is staged, you find yourself pleading, "Just save them already!"
Look for a number of craggy, familiar character actors in supporting roles, and veteran rocker Bonnie Bramlett as a singing saloonkeeper with the wisdom of the ages in her eyes.
Every year or so, America needs a movie that reminds us about the good things our men and women in uniform bring to our patriotic spirit. This may be 2006's cinematic Guardian of our national pride.
Jim McFarlin writes about movies for Metro Times.. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.