Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is considered a legendary U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer and in the opening minutes of The Guardian we witness his endowment. Not only does he save lives but risks his own to do so each time. When one daring mission leaves a boy and Ben’s partner dead, Ben is advised to take some time off and, instead, instruct the next generation of Coast Guards. He hesitantly accepts the teaching position and is told he can return to being a full-time Coast Guard once he has fully recovered from the tragic event.
Ben’s teaching method is a reflection of his attitude; serious and strict, almost like spending a week at boot camp. He puts his students through intense workout sessions. In between exercises, he blesses them with his knowledge. His philosophies are accentuated on the themes of courage, and sacrifice. The film’s poster highlights the Cost Guard mentality: “When lives are on the line, sacrifice everything.”
Among the dozen or so of Ben’s students is a young, handsome, brash, and confident man named Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher). He is a modern version of Maverick (Tom Cruise in Top Gun) in the way he shoots his mouth off about his intentions to break records. But he later realizes that his real purpose is not to break records but to learn. Ben and Jake are the main characters of the movie and the film is centered on their chemistry. They become good friends, to the point where Ben visits a bar and settles a score with an army man to show Jake just how much he cares about him.
When the training is complete, Jake asks Ben a challenging question: “How do you decide who lives and who dies?” Ben answers in a way we expect a veteran Coast Guard to reply. He explains how he looks for the weakest person and then swims to them as fast and hard as he can. Of course, Ben is troubled by the boy and friend he couldn’t save and these losses stay with him, even when he is on duty with Jake.
The Guardian was directed by Andrew Davis, who is experienced in the action genre. Some of his other features include Under Siege (1992), The Fugitive (1993), and Collateral Damage (2002). I recall being on the edge of my seat during The Fugitive and there are adequate moments in The Guardian where I was on the edge again. Even though a number of the action scenes were created by a special effects team, the computer work is scarcely evident. The stormy waters are spectacular to look at, especially when the characters drop into them.
Kutcher undertakes his second dramatic role since The Butterfly Effect (2004) and by now it should be clear to him that he belongs in this genre. Kutcher is a charismatic actor and, like Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland (2006), his performance is one of this year’s biggest revelations. Kevin Costner is equally charming in his role. Costner is known for playing stoic parts and The Guardian should be remembered as one of his most sincere performances. Because the actors are attached to the story, they work well together and their relationship is credible. There is not a moment we don’t care about them.
The film could be seen as a rehash of other navy films such as An Officer and a Gentleman (1982),Top Gun (1986) or the recent Annapolis (2006). No one should make the mistake of walking into the theatre and expect The Guardian to be a different adventure movie. But it is superior to Annapolis with a stronger cast and script – and it even comes close to being as fun as Top Gun (a rare feat in view of today’s cinema.)
The film’s main flaw surfaces in the third act when the film carries viewers to a dramatic conclusion that is more upsetting than it is touching. The Guardian feels a need to end on a melodramatic note and the result is like watching a deleted scene from another navy movie. Melodrama can work in certain scenarios, especially when it is anticipated. Think The Godfather (1972),Legends of the Fall (1994) and Armageddon (1998) to name a few examples. But many may be shocked by how sudden The Guardian switches moods. The ending is not justifiable and viewers are left in the dark, divided.