[Screen It]

(2006) (Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher) (PG-13)

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Drama: After losing his crew in a freak accident, a legendary Coast Guard rescuer swimmer tries to mold a class of new recruits into accomplished rescuers.
In the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, Kodiak, Alaska based Ben Randall (KEVIN COSTNER) is one of their best rescue swimmers and considered a living legend by many, despite his age when most such people have retired from the job. But when a rescue goes bad and Ben not only fails to rescue some victims but also loses his partner Carl Billings (OMARI HARDWICK) in the process, he's shaken to the very core. That isn't helped by the fact that Ben's wife, Helen (SELA WARD), has moved out due to being tired of trying to compete with his all-encompassing focus on his work.

Accordingly, his superiors assign him to teach new recruits at Barksdale Air Force's "A" school where instructors such as Skinner (NEAL McDONOUGH) aren't thrilled with his appointment. Nevertheless, he turns out to be a tough but fair teacher, including to the likes of hotshot Jake Fischer (ASHTON KUTCHER), a strapping and egotistical champion swimmer who's determined to break all of Ben's records.

Along the way, the recruit falls for local schoolteacher Emily (MELISSA SAGEMILLER) who wants to keep things casual, and tries to help third-time recruit Hodges (BRIAN GERAGHTY) finally graduate. As Jake bends the rules about as far as possible, he clashes with Ben who tries to teach him and the other recruits that there's more to this profession than just physical prowess.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Since most everyone can associate with having been on either or both sides of a teacher/student arrangement (be that at home, in school, at work, or in the military), Hollywood can't help itself but repeatedly return to that well for inspiration -- or at least fodder -- for films about just that.

The latest is "The Guardian," a generally well-made but ultra predictable yarn about a solemn, experienced veteran trying to teach a young upstart about their profession and life in general. This time, the story focuses on the U.S. Coast Guard, an organization that doesn't usually get much play in the films, despite the obvious heroic measures its members often take in trying to rescue those trapped at sea or, as was the case about a year ago, plucking victims of Hurricane Katrina to safety (which is briefly referenced in one scene).

Maybe it's because such training -- as with other arms of the military -- is so rigid to ensure (hopefully) uniform results, that director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") and screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff have fallen so far in line with the genre's formula that the film feels like yet another cookie cutter graduate of the school of movie mentors and protégés.

Here, Kevin Costner plays the experienced one, who's so obsessed with his work that his marriage to Sela Ward's long-suffering wife character is nearly kaput. A personal tragedy then results in him being assigned to instruct new recruits, one of which is a cocky, but charmingly handsome Johnny-come-lately (Ashton Kutcher).

He's so sure of himself that he not only boasts he'll best the old-timers' long-standing swim records, but also thinks it's okay to bend the rules as the official wiseacre. Yet, and coupled with his own personal demons, he learns a thing or two about learning a thing or two. And when the dust finally settles, the friction between the two has been replaced by camaraderie that comes in helpful when they actually have to go out and do their thing.

All of that, plus the youngster hooking up with the local girl (Melissa Sagemiller) who's used to the new recruits coming and going, plus the one recruit (Brian Geraghty) who doesn't quite seem to have what it takes to succeed but desperately keeps trying, means the film pretty much dots all of its I's and crosses all of its T's in tapping every formulaic prerequisite the genre requires.

Accordingly, it can't help but draw comparisons or at least evoke memories of films such as "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Top Gun," or even lesser pics like 2006's "Annapolis" that similarly adhered to the same recipe (although not to the point of success). If possibly viewed in a cinematic vacuum (or at least viewed by someone who's never seen those or other similarly themed and plotted films), this might seem like exciting entertainment.

After all, and as he proved in "The Fugitive," Davis can deliver taut action sequences, and there are a number of decently staged ones here. The cast members are generally okay in their roles, even if Costner doesn't really seem to be stretching too much (emotionally) from past characters he's played. Following "The Butterfly Effect" with another non-comedic performance, Kutcher is fairly good, credibly embodying the character type.

Nevertheless, the strict adherence to the required formula and the use (and overuse) of various storytelling conventions (the flashbacks to the mentor's tormented past trauma mean that Omari Harwick - as the deceased former partner -- gets a lot more screen time than one would have guessed considering the outcome of said event) undermine the effort. Simply put, if you've seen this sort of story before, this release will offer little to no surprises or true suspense. Certainly not all washed up, but clearly something of a moldy oldie in terms of plot, "The Guardian" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 31, 2006 / Posted September 29, 2006

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