'Guardian' pays off for Costner, Kutcher
There's a lot to snipe at in "The Guardian":
- The familiarity of the premise in which an impaired veteran bears down on a class of recruits that includes a conceited kid who must be shorn of vanity and spared his confidence before being reconstructed with selfless valor.
- The unnecessary -- except for box office -- distraction of a perfunctory romance in a film whose strengths rest elsewhere.
- The obligation of secondary characters too often to tell others about the leading character's heroic resume.
- The overabundance of hectically photographed action sequences, including one climax too many and an excessive running time of 139 minutes. The difference is that "The Guardian" regurgitates formulaic elements in a way that pays off repeatedly and potently.
With a title that recalls one of Kevin Costner's bigger hits ("The Bodyguard"), "The Guardian" catches him as a fabled U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer named Ben Randall, who is sent to the academy to mentor recruits during the lowest tide of his life.
He's estranged from neglected wife Helen Randall (Sela Ward). His last mission ended catastrophically.
The academy's wash-out rate is more than 50 percent. The new class includes former high-school swimming star and hot shot Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), who quickly beds schoolteacher Emily Thomas (Melissa Sagemiller); and two-time drop-out Hodge (Brian Geraghty), who is the film's sympathetic soul inappropriately relegated to sidelight.
Written by Ron L. Brinkerhoff and directed by Andrew Davis, "The Guardian" troubles itself to depict tough training and to pause for the occasional humanizing moment.
Costner hasn't had a better opportunity since "A Perfect World" (1993) to burrow into a role that uses his natural gravitas to ennoble a character living down demons.
His conviction helps inform the first nicely layered performance by Kutcher.
There's stalwart support by John Heard, Clancy Brown and Jack Skinner, too, but audiences are most likely to respond to Geraghty, whose mix of failure and fortitude makes the most lasting impact.
- In wide release.