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Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Guardian

What do I know about the Coast Guard? I get seasick when I open the washing machine to add fabric softener, so I generally stay away from large bodies of water. I always thought the Coast Guard hung around to tell drunks like my Uncle Ernie not to pee off the side of his boat or to stop the importation of illegal Cuban domestics in an effort to annoy hypocritical rich Conservatives summering out in the Hamptons and in desperate need of cheap household help. I know it sounds shallow, but it’s no shallower than Kevin Costner’s acting talents on display in his last "epic", the putrid Rumor Has It, where his hair had more personality than he did. And both are thinner than Nicole Richie on a 30 day hunger strike. But I digress.

Any movie that features Kevin Costner and H2O in it is always going to be suspect from the start. It’s been eleven years and yet I still have post traumatic stress flashbacks from sitting through his performance in Waterworld. For this, I hope you will forgive me for being cautious when approaching his latest release, The Guardian, now packing them in at the Essex Cinemas.

I was actually surprised at how many people told me in advance that they were looking forward to seeing The Guardian. I thought the theatrical trailer looked like a waterlogged retread of Top Gun or An Officer and a Gentleman and it left me cold and clammier than usual. Were there really that many people out there who loved Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? I always felt that Costner had the appeal of wet Wonder Bread. He might be good for you in his own way, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. Or at least not usually.

The Guardian, you see, proves an exception to this rule. In his role as Ben Randall, the highly successful rescue team leader of the US Coast Guard’s Kodiak Alaska Station, Costner does an excellent job as he copes with his dissolving marriage, his own aging and battered body, and worst of all, the feelings of guilt, fear, and frustration that haunt him because he was the sole survivor of his long-time rescue team after a tragic accident killed them all during a raging storm at sea.
Anyone familiar with Costner’s off-screen antics is probably aware that he has been embroiled in a rather nasty divorce of late, in part because of his boyish frolicking with a nubile masseuse he says "rejuvenated" him (for apparently about 30 minutes and $200). No doubt as Mrs. Costner’s bank account freshened with a new and healthy vitality in the settlement that followed, Kevin was able to easily capture the angst he needed to feel the pain he relays so well on screen in recognizing that he is no longer the "19 year old stud" Maggie McGlone (Bonnie Bramlett; former lead singer of ‘70s group Delaney & Bonnie) recalls him as being when she and Ben Randall first met, over 30 years earlier. Whatever he used for motivation, it works. Costner brings a gravity to this role he’s simply not had in his repertoire before.

After the tragedy with his team, Randall is assigned by his Commanding Officer, William Hadley (Clancy Brown; tv’s "Carnivàle"), to teach at the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers School until such time as he thinks Ben is ready to return to active duty. In reality, Hadley doesn’t really expect Randall to return to the sea, but he hopes that by putting him in charge of new recruits Ben will feel useful and find a new direction for his life. And useful he is ~ especially to young Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher; Open Season), one of the raw recruits, with a talent for swimming that is matched only by his enormous arrogance in bragging that he will be the best rescue swimmer the Coast Guard has ever seen.

What could at this point turn into a sappy buddy film between the two men, younger learning from older, in the tradition of The Karate Kid, excels instead by becoming so much more. First, we see that Jake’s braggadocio is not unfounded. He is the best of the best, and he proves himself better in every grueling test Ben puts the recruits through. More importantly, though, we see that this relationship is going to be much deeper in nature than about training for sea rescues. In many ways, each man is there to rescue the other from their own demons because Ben is not the only one at "A School" with a need to heal.

As the focus of the story turns to Kutcher and the rigors of his education we learn a lot more about his character and what drives him. In what is a truly remarkable revelatory scene in the middle of the movie, Kutcher does something I doubt anybody in America would have thought he could actually do. He moves an audience, many to tears, in a performance that will forever change your perception of him from that dopey kid on tv’s "That ‘70’s Show" to actual, legitimate, serious, adult actor. This is definitely a breakthrough moment for Kutcher and one that he and critics will recall in the years ahead as the turning point in his career. You just know Demi Moore is as proud as any mother, er, wife can be.

The gist of The Guardian is held together by the glue of friendship between Costner and Kutcher’s characters (say that three times real fast!) and it illustrates perfectly how two disparate lives can come together and help each other heal one another’s old wounds while also letting them get to know their own frailties and strengths better, enough to even forgive themselves for tragedies not their faults but theirs to grieve.

Moreover though, The Guardian offers a long overdue valentine to the US Coast Guard, and it proved an indelible education to me and I am sure to most of the audience with whom I shared the theater. Far from just busting erstwhile pot-smokers near the beach, these men and women are challenged daily with terrifying missions in where they must fight the elements, exhaustion, hypothermia, and the hysteria of panicked victims as they struggle for survival in stormy, raging seas.

The Guardian has its’ flawed moments, for sure. I’m not going to gloss over the fact that the women in both men’s lives could just as well have been left on the editing room’s floor. Sela Ward (tv’s "House"), as Costner’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, offers nothing to the proceedings and actually seems almost selfish with her "neglected wife" pout that indicates the genesis of their divorce comes from her feeling ignored more than from her inability to cope with the stress of worrying about Ben’s safety at sea. Meanwhile, Melissa Sagemiller (Life on the Ledge), as Jake’s local "casual" girlfriend Emily, just seems to fill a void designed to prove that Ashton’s character is a red-blooded heterosexual and can fulfill the An Officer and a Gentleman ending expected of him to inject the tiny bit of schmaltz that mars the otherwise grippingly real storyline. These are small concerns.

The Guardian is a terrific production, a tense drama, with magnificent effects that will have you holding your breath like you are down in the water yourself. It’s chalk full of excitement, infused with humor, heart, surprisingly good acting (yes, I’ll even begrudgingly give kudos to Kevin), and the education alone is worth the price of admission. My eyes were opened. I think yours will be too.

We can only hope that The Guardian is the first wave of the Fall season of movies coming to the Essex Cinemas before the end of the year that will turn the tide from so-so to so, so fabulous as is usually the case this time of year. If The Guardian is any indication of things to come, we are in for an exciting Oscar season ahead. Keep your fingers crossed. In the meanwhile, dive right in to The Guardian for a breathtaking two-and-a-half hours of thrills.

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