It might feel like unseen hands of a Legendary Sea God saving you from drowning in Alaska, but it’s really a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. If you’re lucky, it will be veteran lifesaver Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) because he’s Married To His Job.
In theory, Ben’s also wed to Helen (Sela Ward), his Frustrated Wife, whose threats of moving out he took as a joke. At least she leaves behind his comfy chair. He’ll need it to recoup after A Tragic Accident wipes out his crew and leaves him stranded at sea with his Mortally Wounded Partner for what is said to be three hours, but starts in the dead of night and ends at, oh, 11 a.m.
Ben’s bosses Give Him An Ultimatum — he can either Take A Desk Job He Doesn’t Want or take leave from active duty to Teach the Next Generation of rescue swimmers.
Without choice B, there wouldn’t be The Guardian, a stupefyingly awful movie that won’t quit — with its running time (136 minutes), commercial masquerades for the Coast Guard (at one point, the film stock switches to the cheap grain of an ad) or an endless onslaught of cliches.
Its only plus is Costner’s affable alpha male turned delta male. Whether elbowing a drowning man in the face to help save him or berating people like a pro, Costner provides a little gravity. So The Guardian is only nearly unwatchable.
Sent to blandly named “A School,” Ben battles His Inner Demons. He suffers Cold Sweat Dreams from which he wakes up to Pop Pain Pills that he Chases With Wild Turkey. He also has Crippling Flashbacks whenever anyone lights a flare. (A Friendly Female Bartender tells Ben that his life sounds like the words to a country song. Funny, so does every phrase that comes out of her mouth.)
Ben compensates with a tough exterior he shows to “A School’s” new crop of students. There’s the Token Black Guy who initiates Group Decompression Through Hip-Hop after Long Training Sessions; he’s played by Dule Hill, whose lines, if he even had any, you couldn’t remember at gunpoint. There’s also a Pipsqueak Who Toughens Up with help from the Overly Cocky Cadet.
His name is Jake Fischer, a decorated swimming champion played by Ashton Kutcher, or, more specifically, Ashton Kutcher’s Adam’s apple. It bobs therefore it emotes.
Ben’s Unorthodox Methods conflict with Upset Veteran Instructors (one played by the demon-eyed Neal McDonough). I’d say Ron L. Brinkerhoff’s script, perhaps one of the worst ever written, conflicts with the natural progression of time. One of Ben’s exercises leaves students at sea in the middle of the day, followed by a swim to shore lit by what seems like a particularly bright moon.
When not Mouthing Off to Ben — thus initiating a Tough-Love Relationship — Jake is Sneaking Off To Bars where buddies Place A Bet That He Can’t Take Home The Hottest Girl. Emily (Melissa Sagemiller) is a Townie Teacher Hesitant To Love someone who might be a short-timer in town.
Come to think of it, what is an athletic stud like Jake doing in the Coast Guard? Could it be he has A Hidden Secret, one everyone in the film would know if they used the Internet or watched SportsCenter? (I kept expecting Jake’s Overly Demanding Father to show up and talk about it.) What Kutcher does to confront it isn’t really crying; it’s furious blinking to open fake-tear capsules.
Bonding through tragedy, Jake and Ben collaborate in a Late-Night Bar Fight and, eventually, on A Life or Death Mission Where Sacrifices Must Be Made. It’s also a poor excuse for an action sequence, astounding for accomplished adventure director Andrew Davis, who must have chanted “I made The Fugitive” every morning for motivation on his way to this set.
The sole surprise is a jump off a diving board that looks like an unintentional Jackass stunt. Here’s what passes for humor: “You can rescue me anytime” says one randy male diver to a female diver. Her retort is “You, I might let drown.” Wow! Zing! There is something truly funny about The Guardian. No, not that Disney paid money to make it — that it closes with A Bryan Adams Ballad.