'Guardian': In Need of a Little Rescue

In this photo provided by Touchstone Pictures,  a troubled young man (Ashton Kutcher,right) enlists in the Coast Guard, where he's taken in by a renowned rescue swimmer (Kevin Costner) in
In this photo provided by Touchstone Pictures, a troubled young man (Ashton Kutcher,right) enlists in the Coast Guard, where he's taken in by a renowned rescue swimmer (Kevin Costner) in "The Guardian." (via AP Photo/Touchstone Pictures/ Ben Glass) (Ben Glass - Touchstone Pictures Via Ap)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006

Underneath the storm and clang of "The Guardian" lies a modest little B-grade '40s service melodrama, of a subspecies called the unit tribute.

It was once a staple of an industry and a proud nation, celebrating such entities as the 101st Airborne or the 28th Marines or the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And, like its predecessors, "The Guardian" pays tribute to a unit well deserving of the attention.

That would be the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers, the guys who jump out of perfectly dry helicopters into seething seas, and pull those floundering souls about to be COD'd to Davy Jones's locker to a buoy, which is then winched aboard the chopper. In theory, everyone goes home to cocoa, but it is very dangerous work and far too many end up having their cocoa with Captain Jones himself, 40 fathoms below.

And "The Guardian" does an able job of portraying the brutal training, the building of necessary strength, and the sheer guts and skill it takes to perform such duties in a cold brew of cruelness known as an ocean with an attitude.

So let us celebrate its small graces as a way of saying that if we're ever bubbling toward chilled oblivion, let's hope the U.S. Coast Guard is on the mission and the rescue swimmers are in the bird's hatch 20 feet above our wet, sinking heads.

That done, it's time to consider the bloated, oafish thing the movie is beyond its documentary core. Sadly, it leaves truth far behind and becomes a kind of three-handkerchief male weepie that aims to send the masses out with heavier hearts and lighter wallets. Among many sins, possibly its worst is length; Good Lord, it's nearly as long as "Lawrence of Arabia" and felt even longer. And who wants to sit that long in order to see Ashton Kutcher cry baby-tears?

The guys aren't bad. Kevin Costner plays Senior Chief Ben Randall, the legendary go-getter who's at his best in 30-foot seas. He's one of those alpha-guys who make us betas hate ourselves: strong, brave, determined, difficult, unyielding, heroic and extremely annoying. The film opens with a well-crafted, gut-busting rescue gone right, followed by an even more elaborate, well-crafted, gut-busting rescue gone wrong. The seas rise and slam and spray and suck; in the first, Ben fights them, brings a couple back alive; then in the second, maybe he pushes his luck too far and overreaches himself, resulting in catastrophe and loss.

Spent and depressed, he is asked to leave his duty station -- a Coast Guard installation on the Alaskan coast -- and repair to "A-School," which is the hardcore training program for wannabe rescue swimmers. There his prize pupil and biggest headache is Kutcher's Jake Fischer, "Swimchamp" according to Randall's contemptuous, meant-to-prod tough-love disparagement. This part is fine: Costner has morphed into John Wayne as he's aged gracefully, face turned leathery, eyes cold and unforgiving, voice unwavering, confidence like a lighthouse beam on a dark night; he has a masculine authority, a penchant for straight shooting, a no-nonsense demeanor with still a hint of charm. You can see why young men would respect him and wish to please him.

For his part, Kutcher is enthusiastic, puppylike, attractive yet mischievous and completely believable as someone just a few months removed from the glory of high school jock success. I happened to go to a high school where there was an extremely competitive swimming program, and Kutcher fits into those memories perfectly: long, broad, smooth, muscular but not vainly ripped, he's believable as a talented power swimmer (as is, for the record, Costner).

For about an hour, it's a good little film: first the rescue, then the fairly straightforward training drama, the clash of salty and youthful egos, the competition, the spirit, the reluctance of youth to accept wisdom, the reluctance of wisdom to appreciate youth (and particularly usurpation). Some of the exercises the old guys put the youngs through are amusing: underwater weight-pushing contests, rescue wrestling moves and punches (sometimes you have to poke a panicked drowner with an elbow to the snout), and the like. The director, Andrew Davis, has a good feel for ordeal, for physical struggle and for the cold wetness of water.

Ugh. Then it starts. The movie begins to overload its frail reed of a structure with giant sloppages of cliches from other movies, some so bad it's almost comical. Costner's wife (Sela Ward) has left him and he misses her, so we get a few scenes of the drunken, embittered guy on the phone, begging her to pick up over voice mail. Then Kutcher picks up a gal at a bar (Washingtonian Melissa Sagemiller) and begins one of those aren't-we-quiptastic flirtations that seem to happen only in movies. There's a minor subplot about politics within the A-school teaching staff. Then there's a dim interservice rivalry subplot, in which our plucky Coast Guardsmen prove themselves against the brutes from the Navy. I had to laugh: In Marine Corps movies, the Navy boys are always depicted as effete, well-bred, intellectual snobs. In this film, that same Navy is portrayed as akin to a motorcycle gang -- a bunch of bullies and thugs with biceps the size of 16-inch guns, looking for a fight. The fight they get is consummately phony and unbelievable.

Ultimately, the movie veers off into slobbery touchy-feeliness. It seems to fail to understand that these guys are tough and brave because, not in spite, of their emotional repression; it's not satisfied until it can strip them down on a night of confession as old guy and new guy each use the other for therapy, a wet-eyed boo-hoo-a-thon. Oh, they feel so much better after they've hugged. (Did John Wayne hug Jeff Hunter in "The Searchers"? I don't think so.)

It gets worse from there. Just when you think it has completed its arc -- the responsibility, the courage and the nobility have been passed like torches from one generation to the next -- the movie lurches back to Alaska. Instead of being over, it still has two loooooonnnnngggg and increasingly unbelievable rescues to go, which only reiterate thrills we've lived through in the first half-hour. But somehow the tone has become mock-religious, almost liturgical. I felt as if Cecil B. DeMille was behind the camera. "The Guardian" builds to that inevitable operatic ending, where rescue at sea becomes transfiguration and transcendence in the key of manipulation and cheesy pandering.

Lord help those in peril on this sea.

The Guardian (136 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 rated for emotional intensity and profanity.

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