Guardian, The (2006): Andrew Davis’ Genre Actioner, Starring Kevin Costner

Applying the formula of basic-training/military school movies, such as “Top Gun” and “Officer and a Gentleman,” to a reasonably new and timely subject, the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers, “The Guardian” is a genre actioner that finds director Andrew Davis in good form, resulting in a proficient mass entertainment.

The well-executed cross-generational drama and the exciting rescue sequences should turn Disney’s PG-13 feature into a smash hit. The studio was confident enough to sneak preview “The Guardian” full two weeks before it opens.

Though not as exhilarating as Davis’ 1993 Oscar-winning “The Fugitive,” his best feature to date, “The Guardian” gets an injection of energy and excitement from some thrilling sea scenes, executed with state of the art technology that gives the old-fashioned yarn a seemingly more modern facade.

Disney’s film is not as schmaltzy or inspirational as the studio’s current hit current “The Invincible,” or, for that matter, Sony’s “Gridiron” (a lesser species of the form), but it’s cut from the same uniquely American cloth. At heart, “The Guardian” is a predictable two-generational saga that plays by the rules, using excessive running time (2 hours and 20 minutes) to depict an American saga about the kind of heroes not seen much on screen.

Also on the plus side, the movie offers two good roles, for vet Kevin Costner, who gets better and better as an actor, and Ashton Kutcher, who proves to be a potential movie star and lead man, while not entirely neglecting the women, who are usually absent from this fare.

As a water saga, the film may also bring to mind Petersen’s “Big Storm” (but not “Poseidon”), with one major difference. Except for the first scene, “The Guardian” is upbeat by nature, going out of its way to steer clear off any controversy, political and otherwise, in the wake of the Katrina Hurricane disaster and the rescuers’ role in it. Planned before that disastrous event, the movie was to be shot in New Orleans (see below).

When the story begins, legendary Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) has become the sole survivor of a deadly fiery crash at the height of a massive storm in Alaska’s Bering Sea. The catastrophe forces him to deal with the physical and psychological damages involved in losing his entire crew. As is often the case with such tales, “it just happens” that shortly before the disaster, Randall’s neglected wife (Sela Ward) leaves him

In the wake of the accident, Randall, a classic American “reluctant” hero, is sent against his will to teach at A School. The elite training program– not unlike “the best of the best” in “Top Gun”–takes all kinds of young recruits, nave as well as arrogant, and turns them into the best of Rescue Swimmers.

Reeling with grief and regret, Randall throws himself into teaching the only way he knows. A charismatic individualistic instructor, he turns the entire program upside down with his unconventional, out-of-the-box training methods. Even so, Randall understands precisely whats at stakehe knows that his students will one day have to make tough decisions about life and death, namely, to choose those who’ll live and those who’ll die.

Enter cocky Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a former high school swimming champ who’s certain he has the right stuff. Before you can say Jack Nicholson, the two men knock heads. Unimpressed by Fischer’s bluster, Randall sees him as someone with what it takes to be “the best of the best”if only Fischer could combine his raw talent with the heart, discipline, and dedication necessary, so that he can avoid the mistakes Randall himself has made.

Echoing Tom Cruise’s scenes with Kelly McGillis in “Top Gun,” Fischer divides his time between romancing a sexy schoolteacher (Melissa Sagemiller) during off-duty hours, and trying to prove his mettle to Randall. Brief and not particularly alluring, the yarn’s romantic elements seem to have been inserted in order not to alienate completely the female constituency-an effort to make “The Guardian” a date action movie.

In due time, the big test arrives. Heading out on his first treacherous mission to the fierce, turbulent waters of Alaskas Bering Sea, Fischer puts all that hes learned into action, and discovers for himself for the first time what it means to truly risk everything.

Created with the Coast Guards full cooperation (which means the movie could not be critical), “The Guardian” utilizes true-life rescue heroes as advisors and as part of the cast. The production, which was itself constantly battling weather and the elements, was designed around a massive, innovative wave tank that simulated the wild and stormy waters.

“The Guardian” walks a fine line between repeating archetypes and thematic conventions, which is legit in a genre flick, and exploiting clichs that have become too dusty to be recycled.

John Wayne had built a whole career in movies like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “Red River,” and dozens John Ford Westerns, playing roles similar to Costner’s Randall, the grizzled macho and dedicated pro–sort of a surrogate father and sociological role model–who has to initiate novices and cocky hotheads into a new line of work and in the process make them reliable prosand “real men.”

Significantly, this picture pays tribute to saviors, not soldiers. Scripter Ron L. Brinkerhoff centers on Rescue Swimmers as an elite unit of men and women who dive from helicopters, often during dangerously stormy weather to save victims of disaster (not political wars). Brinkerhoff is quoted to be saying, “What I found most compelling is that the Coast Guard is the only branch of the military whose mandate is entirely to save lives, not take them.

There have been celebratory movies about up-front heroic servicemen, like firefighters, policemen, and doctors, but the filmmakers hold that the Coast Guards extraordinary but little-known Rescue Swimmers are different kinds of heroes, working mainly in the shadows, and risk anything and everything to save strangers under the most extreme circumstances. As brave elite members, they possess the uncommon physical and mental fortitude to free-fall from helicopters directly into raging seas and massive storm-floods to rescue victims–no matter the costs.

Andrew Davis focuses on a special breed of men and women who risk their lives against the biggest storms and monstrous waves in service to the motto: So that others may live! The script describes the relationship between two menone a revered veteran of fabled deep-water rescues nearing retirement, the other a bold, brash, youngster just starting his trainingand explore how bravery and wisdom are gained through their intense experiences.

The story takes us into a world seldom seen before, with graphic portrayals of Bering Sea’s nocturnal rescuing missions, showing swimmers jumping into 20-foot waves in freezing temperatures. We also get a glimpse of the Rescue Swimmers as a unique professional group performing the multi-tasks of athletes, surgeons, psychiatrists, and clergymen, since they not only decide who to save, but often are forced to deliver last rites to the victims at sea and console survivors and the victims’ families.

The filmmakers aim to deconstruct a quintessential action hero, but by highlighting only the positive sides–the physical, psychological and emotional toll this profession takes, and underlining the remarkable sacrifices required, they end up elevating them to the level of myth. Thus the goals to peel back the question of what makes a hero, and ask why does somebody do this and what price do they pay, is barely tackled, let alone answered.

Nonetheless, Davis is a shrewd commercial director who knows how to entertain the mass audience with a combo of dramatic human moments and large-canvas action set-pieces. As noted, the Coast Guard’s blessing–and unalloyed supportis a key to bringing a more visceral authenticity to the production. “The Guardian” provides some realistic scenes of water rescue yet to be seen on film. Davis keeps the most exciting mission for the end, a sequence that generates the requisite thrills and frills.

Despite strong reservations about the narrative, you’ve got to admire the technical challenges in recreating on screen the furious storms and choppy seas faced by Rescue Swimmers. A director known for his consummate skill with character-driven action-thrillers like The Fugitive and Under Siege,” Davis shows balance between depicting the tension and danger of the situations in spectacularly visual way and conveying character and drama, such as they are. In the good moments, Davis succeeds in creating a character out of the ocean, right next to the humans played by Costner, Kutcher, and the other members.

Well-cast, Costner continues to impress as a middle-aged actor in a way that he didn’t not as a younger movie star. Here he does well the demanding mentor, haunted by past failures, who’s ambiguous about passing the torch to the next generation.

Ashton Kutcher is also compelling as the brash recruit who has to confront his own personal problems. As more traits of his character are disclosed, Kutcher’s performance gets deeper and more substantial, and in the end, he emerges as a worthy partner of Costner’s.

Ultimately, “The Guardian” is about the passing of a mantleand how the younger man comes to replace the legend. Its about one man facing the reality of growing older and another learning from his mentor what the work involves, and how not to make the same mistakes. Inserting these human elements in the midst of incredible natural forces makes “The Guardian” satisfying as mass entertainment.

End note

Though rarely acknowledged publicly, reportedly in an average year, the Coast Guard saves about 5,000 lives and $2.5 billion worth of property. During the devastating 2005 hurricane season, they rescued or evacuated an estimated 33,520 people in the Gulf States ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Rescue Swimmers’ training program is considered the toughest branch in the military– nearly 50% of those who enter drop out. For those who make it, what lies ahead are perilous missions in the darkest, coldest, roughest waters, where they must battle disorientation, exhaustion, hypothermia, and lack of oxygen.

Davis collaborated closely with three Rescue Swimmer legends, who served as consultants as well as playing roles in the film: renowned Coast Guard instructor and rescue survival specialist Robert E. Watson; John F. Hall, who was responsible for rescues after Katrina; and Joseph Butch Flythe, a decorated swimmer and one of five original Rescue Swimmers chosen for the Coast Guard program.

Pre-production began before the Rescue Swimmers teams were in the spotlight, trying to save stranded people in water and land during Hurricane Katrina. Most of the movie was shot in northwest Louisiana, including exteriors at Barksdale Air Force Base.