Cliches and conventions from several generations of basic-training scenarios are proficiently recycled in “The Guardian,” a shrewdly updated version of classic (and not-so-classic) military-themed pics about grizzled, blunt-spoken vets who transform cocksure hotheads into coolly efficient professionals. With Kevin Costner well cast as a demanding mentor haunted by past failures, and Ashton Kutcher surprisingly effective as a brash recruit dealing with his own demons, the overlong but involving drama has obvious cross-generational appeal. Add some exciting rescue-at-sea sequences, and you have the potential for an early fall breakout hit.
Neatly sidestepping any possibility for political controversy, this particular basic-training pic pays tribute to saviors, not soldiers. Scripter Ron L. Brinkerhoff focuses on the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers, an elite unit of men and women who hoist or dive from helicopters — often during dangerously stormy weather — to aid victims in distress. (Production was green-lit well before Rescue Swimmers attracted attention while saving people stranded on rooftops, or drifting in floodwaters, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) So arduous is the training that, more than 50% of the Rescue Swimmer candidates drop out before completing their schooling.
Ben Randall (Costner) is a living legend among Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers. But he’s hard-pressed to deal with the physical and psychological damage after he loses his entire crew in a fiery crash in the Bering Sea near Kodiak, Alaska. (It doesn’t help much that, shortly before the disaster, Randall’s neglected wife, played by Sela Ward, left him.)
Randall’s commander reassigns him from active duty to the head teaching post at the Coast Guard’s “A” School for Rescue Divers. (Bulk of the pic was shot in northwest Louisiana, including locales at Barksdale Air Force Base.) Randall objects, but follows orders.
Enter Jake Fischer (Kutcher), a former high school swimming champ who’s certain he has the right stuff to make the grade. On the first day of training, however, he runs afoul of Randall, who’s unimpressed by Fischer’s bluster, and skeptical of his dedication.
As Fischer divides his time between romancing a sexy schoolteacher (Melissa Sagemiller) during off-duty hours, and trying to prove his prowess to a cynically incredulous Randall, “The Guardian” is more than a little reminiscent of “An Officer and a Gentleman.” The big difference here is, the romantic elements are scarcely more than window dressing. Director Andrew Davis focuses primarily, if not exclusively, on the edgy conflict between stern mentor and callow student.
Costner is effortlessly convincing as a savvy and seasoned professional who’s not quite ready to pass the torch on to a new generation. Kutcher is every bit as convincing, if markedly less interesting, during early scenes that emphasize Fischer’s golden-boy bravado. As complexities of the character are revealed, however, Kutcher’s performance deepens and darkens into something far more substantial. Like Fischer, the young actor gradually proves himself as a worthy partner for his older cohort.
Supporting roles are capably filled by the likes of Neal McDonough (as a zealous assistant instructor), Clancy Brown (Randall’s severe but sympathetic commander) and John Heard (the “A” School chief). Singer Bonnie Bramlett steals scenes from Costner, Kutcher and everyone else onscreen as a brassy jazz-blues chanteuse who operates a music club near the chool. Sagemiller and Ward have little to do.
Pic clocks in at an indulgent 139 minutes, though it never feels draggy. The training-school story is bracketed with genuinely thrilling rescue sequences convincingly filmed in a 750,000-gallon water tank constructed for the production in Shreveport, La. (Unlike the real-life Rescue Divers, the filmmakers had to flee New Orleans — their original choice of location — after Hurricane Katrina struck last year.)
Pic’s stab at acquiring a mythical dimension during the final rescue mission aren’t exactly successful. But the mission itself generates maximum suspense while showcasing outstanding contributions by production designer Maher Ahmad and f/x supervisor William Mesa. Music by Trevor Rabin recalls his similar scores (complete with martial drumbeats) for “Armageddon” and “Con Air.”