October 2, 2006

The Guardian

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Settling into my seat and placing my Birkinstock-clad feet just so atop the chair in front of me, I readied myself to watch Ashton Kutcher act. Don’t get me wrong, he was brilliant as Dude #1 in Dude, Where’s My Car? (I really felt that he didn’t know where his car was,) but his filmography to date doesn’t really include much by the way of substantive acting or any roles that would challenge the Punk’d star at all. The Guardian could be his chance to prove that he has actual potential as an actor instead of a prettyboy with a punchline.

The movie’s story follows an aging Coast Guard rescue swimmer legend named Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) as he is reassigned from the treacherous waters of Kodiak, Alaska to a benign teaching position the at “A School,” where rescue swimmers are trained. Dealing with the traumas of both losing his best friend/close colleague in a rescue gone wrong as well as his beloved wife’s recent request for a divorce, Randall isn’t sure teaching is as important as rescuing until he meets the cocky but extraordinarily talented Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher.) On the first day, Fischer contends that he will break all of Randall’s records and then he discovers the man will be his instructor for the next eighteen grueling weeks. Through his unconventional teaching tactics, Randall tries to instill in Fischer and the rest of the elite squad hopefuls that their priorities have to be in the right place both as swimmers and in life–bring on the tissues–and that the one record to really break is how many lives are saved.

Kutcher’s character as written is pretty much Maverick from Top Gun in a wetsuit. He is smug but with the raw talent to back it up, and with a thing or two to learn from the older and wiser instructors. Fischer even sports aviators when the audience is first introduced to him on the bus to A School. Kutcher did the best he could with the role, because the script does not do much to detract from the Maverick cliché. Most obviously, the uninspired work by writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff is shown with the thinly veiled symbolism of Fischer’s name. (Ohhh, I see! Cause he’s a swimmer!) Kutcher’s charisma, however, is undeniable, and it is so easy to believe him to be brash yet charming. He gets to show off a bit of his acting chops in certain more emotional scenes. Because the Randall character is supposed to be rigid and outwardly unaffected, Kutcher makes Costner look like a cardboard cutout when they are onscreen together, both with comedy and by tearjerking.

The movie itself, although quite formulaic, has a surprising amount of artistic quality. Director Andrew Davis is best known for helming the Harrison Ford classic The Fugitive and the Gwyneth Paltrow thriller A Perfect Murder, so he is no stranger to the action genre. He is adept at sprinkling directorial liberties throughout what could be just another inconsequential Friday night popcorn gorge. The movie opens deep underwater, from the point of view of someone drowning. Davis then takes the audience back to the same underwater vista at the end of the movie bringing us full circle to find out just whose point of view it is. Also, whereas many movies in the broad action genre have some sort of montage, (a prescription spoofed brilliantly by Team America: World Police might I add,) at least The Guardian adds some pizzazz to its obligatory montage scene. Davis elects to use a home movie camera to film the swimmers’ training, and at its conclusion, he turns it into their coast guard version of game film with a shot of them watching it in a classroom. That’s a lot more artistic license than we get from the likes Kutcher’s wife’s infamous flick G.I. Jane or any other forgettable action film and especially from the military sub-genre.

Sure the movie is predictable. It steers you to ask certain questions at certain times (whatever happened to Kutcher’s lady friend? What’s Randall going to do after the eighteen weeks are up? etc,) but the ride it takes you on is absorbing at the time and you don’t really notice the manipulation as its happening. You’re just there with Fischer in the pool, with Randall in the helicopter, with Randall and Fischer in the frigid Alaska waters. This movie won’t be a cult classic like Top Gun, and as much as he tries, Fischer is no Maverick, but The Guardian was a good time and worth the ticket and two hours of my life.