I got sick a few times when I was in junior high, though I don’t remember all of them. I know I hit a bout of walking pneumonia, but to be honest, I’ve managed to successfully gouge most of the memories of that age right out of my mind. I do remember, though, having my dad take me to the hospital one day so I could get a barium enema. The words began to run together in my head until it became some nonsense phrase of vague but palpable terror: bariumenema, bariumenema, I’m getting a bariumenema, etc. It’s a vastly uncomfortable process for anyone, but it opened my 12-year-old eyes to a whole new kind of pain, since my rear end, up till that point in my life, had functioned under a strict exit-only policy. When my father and I arrived home, my mom opened the door to see me staring blankly at her. She glanced at my father, who told her about my rough afternoon, and she welcomed me into her arms. I only bring all this up because sitting through The Sentinel felt a lot like that day in the doctor’s office, laying half naked on a cold sheet of steel, letting myself be bombarded with radiation while foreign fluids were flown into my colon. Clark Johnson’s pseudo-thriller is a movie of the dumbest kind, falling far short of the “24” rip-off to which it aspires and landing somewhere around the level of a late-night “Law & Order” rerun, the kind of hackneyed non-drama you can watch with your eyes closed. The Sentinel is a stunning display of mediocrity, a shining monument to bad filmmaking, and a disturbingly stupid portrayal of the Secret Service. I’ll be using the word “stupid” a few more times throughout the review.
A visually confusing opening sequence built on cheap effects and flash-cuts shows the assassination attempt on President Reagan, giving us a glimpse that Secret Service agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) was wounded at the scene. Walking into work one day, he runs into a fellow agent named Charlie (director Johnson), who whispers conspiratorially about a “theory” he wants to float by Pete. Pete takes this news pretty casually for an agent on the president’s personal detail, but can you blame him? He’s got other stuff to do, namely, and pardon my dramatic italics, banging the President’s wife. That’s right, Pete is sleeping with the First Lady, Sarah (Kim Basinger), and the President (David Rasche) seems to have no idea. No one does, which is just one of the many logical leaps Johnson wants us to make. At one point, Pete and other agents and a few secretaries accompany Sarah to her beach house, and Pete and Sarah have sex upstairs while everyone else hangs out in the kitchen, apparently unconcerned that Pete isn’t answering his radio and that no one has seen the First Lady in a while. Aside from being just plain irrational, an agent sleeping with the President’s wife is a stupid, stupid plot line, going well beyond the limits of suspended belief into farfetched TV-movie territory. Oh, but there’s more: Charlie is gunned down on his porch in broad daylight. Thankfully, Secret Service agents David Breckenridge (Kiefer Sutherland) and Jill Marin (Eva Longoria) are smart enough to suspect foul play. Sutherland’s a decent enough actor, and playing an obsessive agent on the trail of a presidential assassin is, by now, second nature to him. He stalks the screen, doing the best he can with the rote dialogue, but his believability makes up for the fact that Longoria is completely miscast. Her uninspired line readings can’t cover up that she’s just here for eye candy: Her character is so flat that to call it predictable would be to grant it a three-dimensionality it doesn’t have.
Pete soon pays the price for his indiscretions: He gets an envelope containing photos of him and Sarah in medias coitus and instructions to meet his blackmailer at a cafe, which turns out to be a setup, since the FBI’s monitoring the restaurant as part of a stakeout on some Middle Eastern terrorist cell, the name of which is tossed around like it’s supposed to carry meaning for the viewer. And somehow he winds up being framed for an attempt to assassinate the president. How, you might ask? Good question, and the answer is: I don’t rightly know. It just sort of happens. Some kind of fake paperwork concerning a bank account appears, which of course is never dealt with again, and of course Pete tanks his polygraph because he’s the First Mister, so Breckenridge starts hounding him. Sutherland has a pretty thankless role here, tasked with chasing the wrong man for the right reasons, and it’s pretty clear that screenwriter George Nolfi (Timeline and Ocean’s Twelve, and thanks a pantload for those, George) is basing Sutherland’s character on Tommy Lee Jones’ U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard from The Fugitive. Whether it’s because Nolfi thinks no one dumb enough to see his movie will have seen Jones’ performance isn’t clear, but he even rips off Jones’ speech to his troops by having Breckenridge address his fellow agents in the street at the scene of Pete’s disappearance.
So it’s up to Breckenridge and the sluttily disreputable Jill to track down ol’ Pete, who’s scouring the Maryland countryside for the real bad guys. It’s hardly a unique plot, but it could have been halfway decent had Johnson the foresight to try and make it different from the dozens of cop thrillers that come out every year. That is, nothing sets this story apart by virtue of its setting, which is a real shame, since a thriller involving Secret Service agents has the potential to deal with bigger ideas and tell stories on a grander scale than any old police precinct drama. These agents are supposed to be part of the most elite team of guards in the world, and they’re easily fooled and pitifully stupid when it comes to actually tracking down the bad guys. Now, like many people with a heart and half a brain, I’m a pretty big fan of Aaron Sorkin, who created “The West Wing.” Sorkin’s portrayal of the Secret Service on that show was probably the most realistic yet on film or TV, namely, his agents were smart, capable, and functioned as a tight-knit team. Johnson taxes even the most forgiving viewer by asking us to believe that these characters are really this stupid. Frankly, I’m not buying.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Today Is the Longest Day of My Life
Film | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()