"The Guardian" is short on human drama, but long on thrilling action sequences.
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." (AP Photo/Touchstone Pictures/ Ben Glass)
A decade after the commercial and critical flop of "Waterworld" nearly drowned his career, Kevin Costner is back to sea in "The Guardian," and this time his dignity remains afloat.
He stars as Ben Randall, a legendary Coast Guard rescue specialist who drops from helicopters and swims through raging ocean waves to save endangered mariners. His hazardous and unpredictable duties have taken a toll on his home life and his wife begins a separation. When a mission to save a sinking trawler goes disastrously wrong, Randall's last link with his former life is severed.
Sensing that the overstressed hero needs to regain his bearings in a new assignment, his commander transfers him from active duty to instructing new recruits. He dives headfirst into his new responsibilities, teaching at Coast Guard rescue school, where his maverick star pupil Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) is grappling with buried issues of his own.
The film is essentially a recruiting poster for the Coast Guard, which is good and not so good. If "The Guardian" encourages anyone to join the service and save people in peril, hooray for everyone involved. On the level of drama, though, the film could use some more interpersonal conflict, the kind springing from characters with mixed motives and dark agendas. In return for military cooperation in making the film, it portrays no one in uniform with serious human failings, unless you count caring too much and trying too hard. It's an exciting man-against-nature saga, but without an antagonist besides Davy Jones, the story lacks a compelling human dimension.
Director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive,"A Perfect Murder") has enough material for two films here, and at a generous 139 minutes, there are moments when "The Guardian" feels like a double feature. Still, Davis does a more than capable job of balancing the story's spectacular thrill-ride sequences against its leisurely passages of student-teacher conflict, serviceman-civilian woman romance, swimming drills and chain-of-command hassles.
Just as you're about to begin drumming your fingertips impatiently against the popcorn tub, Davis shifts the movie out of park and sends it zooming down the road. He stages the rescue scenes with admirable clarity. You always have a strong sense of where the characters are, what their escape route is, and how long they have before the water rises to dangerous levels.
Costner's performance is everything the role calls for. After two decades in front of the camera he slips into strong, silent roles like this one as easily as zipping up a wet suit. Kutcher is a serviceable light comedy performer and the script plays to his strengths, handing him some laughs in a bar brawl scene and several romantic interludes with Melissa Sagemiller as a lusty local schoolteacher. He doesn't have the authority to stand up to Costner in their confrontations, though, and when they become partners on rescue dives it's hard to believe that Costner would pass his responsibilities to the younger man so suddenly. Most viewers will leave the theater wishing he had hung around longer.