A half-hearted exercise in political paranoia, “The Sentinel” unravels its wrong-man scenario with business-like efficiency and an impressively jittery visual scheme, but falls far short of providing visceral or emotional thrills. Playing a Secret Service agent who’s framed in a conspiracy to assassinate the president, Michael Douglas leads a high-powered cast that simply can’t extract any fresh juice from the script’s desultory characterizations, which should precipitate quick B.O. flameout following an initial surge of interest in the 20th Century Fox release.
Given the geopolitical ambitions of recent bigscreen thrillers like “Syriana” and “The Interpreter,” or the all-terrorism-all-the-time mayhem of Fox TV’s “24,” there’s something almost quaint about a film where a mole in the president’s first line of defense — as opposed to, say, a nuclear bomb scare or a biochemical attack — constitutes the gravest threat to national security. But next to these superior examples, “The Sentinel” can’t help but feel mildly anemic by comparison.
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The suspicious murder of a Secret Service agent (helmer Clark Johnson, billed as “Clarque”) prompts an internal investigation that has a particularly nasty fallout for veteran agent Pete Garrison (Douglas), who is locked in an ostensibly passionate but tastefully lensed love affair with the woman he’s been assigned to protect, First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger).
When Garrison receives an envelope full of incriminating sex photos, his compliance with the blackmailer’s demands — coinciding with a failed attempt on the life of President Ballentine (David Rasche) — leads him straight into a devious trap.
Subsequent frame-up forces Garrison to go on the lam from his own department while trying to figure out who really wants the president killed, in the process getting his groove back as one of the Secret Service’s deadliest and most reliable agents.
Leading the charge to hunt him down are his estranged protege David Breckinridge (“24’s” Kiefer Sutherland), fetching rookie Jill Marin (Eva Longoria of “Desperate Housewives”) and senior agent William Montrose (the reliably intense Martin Donovan).
Though its plot twists are fairly transparent, George Nolfi’s screenplay (adapted from Gerald Petievich’s tersely written 2003 novel) could have carried a strong emotional undertow had either of its key relationships been satisfactorily fleshed out. As it is, Garrison’s connection with the First Lady never feels intense enough to justify such a blatant indiscretion, while the cause of his falling-out with Breckinridge is so flimsy and undermotivated, even the film seems reluctant to linger over explanations.
Though Douglas, at 61, is arguably past his prime as a professional bodyguard, he supplies Garrison — an aging legend who once took a bullet for President Reagan — with both a firm rooting interest and a persuasive sense of world-weary fatigue.
Sutherland is in his ornery element, tossing off some of the script’s better lines with sarcastic relish, while Longoria has the thankless job of absorbing the impact. Well, that and being ogled by her male colleagues, a running gag that grows less funny as it becomes increasingly clear the film isn’t going to give her anything intelligent or constructive to do.
Compensating for the wan material is helmer Johnson’s highly kinetic visual approach, as cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (who also lensed Johnson’s “S.W.A.T.”) evokes the classic paranoid thrillers of the ’70s with his roving, restless camera, snaking zoom lens and sinister interpolation of surveillance-camera footage. Pic derives considerable authenticity from having been shot in Washington, D.C., and Toronto, the site of its climactic summit meeting.
Cindy Mollo’s sharp editing works in fluid rhythm with Christophe Beck’s electronic score, though the results tend more toward a pleasing sense of percussion than any genuine heightening of suspense.