As I learned the hard way — when reviewing Zach Braff’s The Last Kiss — it often doesn’t matter how much you revile a film, if you defend a much-maligned actor, the focus will inevitably shift to the navel-gazing celebrity. Likewise, even if you revile the much-maligned actor, but enjoy one of his films — Tom Cruise in M:i:III, for instance — a lot of our readers (or at least the small percentage reflected in the comments section) will nevertheless concentrate their venom on the leading man. Indeed, there is nary an actor or actress in Hollywood who rises to A-level (or upper B-level) status these days without creating at least some animosity amongst moviegoers. For all their successes, Vince Vaughn, Tom Hanks, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Scarlet Johansson, Bruce Willis, Jack Black, the Wilson brothers, Kate Hudson, Mathew McConaughey, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Sarah Jessica Parker, et al., all have cultivated varying degrees of backlash (and I’d say that Matt Damon is the one exception, but I’d no doubt soon discover otherwise). A large part of our celebrity-obsessed culture, I reckon, is equally passionate about its detestation of fame, and a site that purports to provide “Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People” clearly helps to foster that loathing, something with which this reviewer has absolutely no problem (though my hatred is usually reserved for writers [Haggis] and directors [Levant, Schumacher, Bay, etc.] rather than the pretty little empty heads asked to deliver the lines). Still, we’d be an awfully weak-willed site if we offered up apologies for our opinions when they didn’t mesh with our detractors and, like anyone with a modicum of pride, it just further entrenches our positions.
All of this context, of course, brings me to The Guardian, which sports two of the most maligned celebrities in all of Hollywood: Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Costner. Personally, I think that Kutcher may be one of the worst thespians in the business, but I do have a bit of respect for the guy, mostly for the way he’s molded his own celebrity — that, and I think that there is a certain genius to “Punk’d,” if only for its ability to reveal the true nature of celebrity personalities (cue Braff’s spoiled tirade against an 8-year-old boy, for instance). And after his excellent performance in last year’s little seen The Upside of Anger, I thought there might have been a sea change for Costner, until he made the mistake of returning to Costnerian form in the dreadful Rumor Has It. As it stands, Costner’s been playing “washed-up athletes” for so long now that I’m beginning to wonder when he’s finally going to turn to washed-up “washed-up athletes.”
Still, I made it a point to keep my personal feelings toward Costner and Kutcher out of my review of The Guardian. Actually, the harder bias for me to get over was the fact that The Guardian was yet another “water” film, and I don’t think there’s been a goddamn “water” film I’ve liked in my lifetime (Poseidon, Titanic, The Perfect Storm, Waterworld, and Master and Commander [What am I missing? And submarine movies don’t count.]). And, I guess — given what The Guardian had going against it at the outset — that I was a bit surprised that I didn’t actually loathe it; indeed, it’s a typical, glossy, mainstream, more-than-adequate piece of entertainment, even if it has absolutely nothing original or marginally interesting to say (though the hooey-filled ending may leave you gagging for the better part of the night.) Let’s just say that The Guardian is coherent, professionally done, and — for the most part — doesn’t make you want to maim yourself or anyone around you, which is about the highest praise I can muster for an Ashton Kutcher film.
Ben Randall (Costner) is a close-to-washed-up Coast Guard swimmer. After his wife (the criminally underused Sela Ward) leaves him and he loses his entire crew in a helicopter accident during a rescue attempt, Randall is forced to take over instructing duties for the Coast Guard training school (the A-school), where the attrition rate is higher than 50 percent. Jake Fischer (Kutcher) is one of his cocksure students, winner of all sorts of swim medals in high school and recruited by all the Ivy League schools, blah blah blah, and it’s basically Randall’s responsibility to knock him down a few notches and hone his technical swimming expertise into something practical. In other words: Wipe the shitty grin from his face (no small task when it comes to Kutcher, whose smirk is seemingly stitched into place). From there, the story unfolds like your typical Full Metal Jacket plotline (boot camp followed by war), only instead of the USMC, it’s the Coast Guard; instead of Stanley Kubrick, it’s Andrew Davis; instead of R. Lee Ermey, it’s Kevin Costner; and instead of being a great film … well, you get the picture.
And though you know damn near everything that’s going to happen, I guess it’s fair to say that it’s still not entirely unwatchable. Aside from having to endure Kutcher’s occasional “hoo-rah!” or witness his attempts to weep for the camera (unpleasant), it’s a lot less ham-fisted than you’d expect from a military film with traces of patriotic fervor. The supporting cast, including Fischer’s love interest (“Sleeper Cell“‘s Melissa Sagemiller) and the loser-who-redeems himself (Brian Geraghty) acquit themselves decently, though the token black guy is only given token-black-guy lines, which is all the more unfortunate because it’s a wasted use of Dulé Hill (“The West Wing”). The training sequences, likewise, are a lot more entertaining than you’d think a bunch of guys flopping around in water would be (though there are far too many of them). And screenwriter Ron Brinkherhoff even provides an ending that might have been predictable in the early ’90s, but it’s something that the test-screening-obsessed studios are less prone to allowing these days, which makes it something of a surprise — though, I suppose this surprise is closer to the sudden brain aneurysm variety than, say, Ed McMahon showing up at your front door.
Ultimately, The Guardian is about as typical and bland as you can expect from an action-drama, and exactly the kind of movie that conventional middle-American audiences — who eschew subversions like Kutcher shuns Oscar-caliber performances — will lap up. Actually, maybe the most appropriate thing I can say about The Guardian is that it may just be the perfect movie to take your parents to after a pleasant dinner at Applebee’s, particularly if you’re looking for a long two-and-a-half-hour block when you don’t have to speak to them. And if you’re putting off bad news (coming out the closet, unexpected pregnancy, murder charges), The Guardian may even soften the blow.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Slightly Better than Self-Inflicted Chinese Water Torture
Film | September 30, 2006 | Comments ()