Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Guardian, The (2006)

Ashton Kutcher's Tom Cruise moment

Earlier this year in August, there was a Japanese film called Umizaru 2: Limit of Love, an ocean liner disaster movie starring Ito Hideaki and Sato Ryuka as heroic Japanese Coast Guards. It was a good movie, coming close to the brilliance of its predecessor. Umizaru was a kind of Top Gun for the Coast Guard, putting through Ito and Sato through a water-based boot camp with a strict but kind-hearted instructor with a troubled past. Now the circle of intercultural adaptation is complete: what Umizaru took from Top Gun and made its own, The Guardian takes from Umizaru, combines it with An Officer and a Gentleman, and makes it its own. Kind of.

Here, Ashton Kutcher stars as the talented and arrogant star swimmer Jake Fischer, who enrols in the US Coast Guard’s elite training school, where the attrition rate is over 50%. Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is the record-setting rescue diver who, after losing an entire rescue team and buddy in a freak rescue operation, is posted to the school as its newest chief instructor. Expect youthful arrogance to run into age-dulled bitterness and resentment all around! Expect Randall to devise a tough new training programme for the new batch of trainees under his watch, and to dole out special loving treatment for the guy who keeps smirking at him in the corner (that would be Kutcher, of course).

I don’t know how true to life the training for coast guard rescue divers is in the movie, but the director certainly knows how interesting the different diving drills look on screen, and gives the audience plenty to look at. Since boot camp films have been mostly about the Army, Marines, Air Force or the Navy, The Guardian offers gives a fresh look at how the game is played in the Coast Guard. Like the first Umizaru, this movie makes drills in a swimming pool feel more engaging and purposeful. It helps that Kevin Costner shows he is still capable of pulling off the role of a tough but ego-less mentor who really wants to mould his recruits into lifesaving miracles, and Ashton Kutcher is able to exude a cheeky confidence that makes him far more likeable than the average arrogant jock character type he is asked to play.

Unlike Umizaru and Top Gun, this film does away with the standard rivalry between the lead character and the foil, and concentrates on the complex loathing, jealousy and subtle admiration between Randall and Fischer, as well as how the unorthodox and gruelling training methods of Randall turn to be highly appropriate and quite the opposite of sadistic.

Unfortunately for us, the first 2/3s of the movie do focus far too much on the two characters and give short shrift to both love interests of Randall and Fischer. If you have an instinctive dislike of either Kevin Costner or Ashton Kutcher, you will find this movie very difficult to sit through. Whether or not you find Kutcher’s turn for serious drama credible, it might be very difficult to stifle the urge to hum the guitar entrance to “Take my breath away” when he puts on sunglasses and combs his hair in a mirror – and the scene wasn’t meant to be a parody of Top Gun. That’s a pity because both give their best film performances in a long time here.

Randall may continue to stress over and over again the importance of teamwork in a diving rescue team, but the Fischer is paired with a buddy only nearly at the end of the training portion of the movie. Given that rescue divers apparently have long-term buddies (Randall as well as the Japanese cast for Umizaru), it was somewhat bewildering to see the movie vacillate until the final moment between the criminally-underused Dule Hill, face fully visible with a “look at me!” expression but constantly in the background of many scenes, and Brian Geraghty, the token repeat student who keeps failing the same item in the final test and had the same “look at me!” expression as well. At over 2 hours, The Guardian runs longer than Umizaru, but strangely fails to flesh out the personalities of the diving trainees or the camaraderie in the team that should develop due to their extreme training under Randall.

Otherwise, the direction and camerawork for the movie are almost perfect. There were a few slow motion sequences and hallucinatory flashbacks that seemed overemotional and over the top compared to the subdued and controlled tone of this movie, but The Guardian is far too well-made to trip up badly. The indoor training sequences are sufficiently dramatic, the sea rescues are supported with at least 3 studios’ worth of CGI and special effects, and Kevin Costner’s performance is the most understated and effective in this decade – what’s there to really stop The Guardian from being one of the best action dramas of this year?

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006

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