Much like Top Gun and, to a lesser extent, An Officer and a Gentleman, Andrew Davis' boys-in-basic-training melodrama The Guardian primarily functions as a recruitment tool for its chosen military branch. The Coast Guard would do well to have volunteers posted outside theaters this weekend. Put down the popcorn, pass around the sign-up sheet, and point the way to the pool - we're ready to enlist.
These movies have an established pattern, and Guardian follows it to the letter. To borrow a phrase from Ron L. Brinkerhoff's soggy screenplay, Guardian swims with the current as it tics off predictable accomplishments en route to a by-the-book conclusion. At times, it's laudable. At times, it's laughable. But nothing prepared me for the sheer atrocity that occurs in the film's final frames.
Before we get to that, let's discuss the plot. The Coast Guard's rescue swimmers are an elite bunch, and Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is the best of the best. His years of heroism have come with a price. The demands of the job cost Randall his wife (Sela Ward), his rescue partner, and his health. After a harrowing rescue goes awry, Randall is ordered to take a teaching position at the Guard's training facility, where he's tasked to mold the next generation of fearless swimmers.
Randall's class mainly consists of screenwriting clichés. There's a muscle-bound show-off who gets booted because he can't stay afloat. There's a glutton for punishment who has flunked the program twice already but keeps coming back for more water torture. Not surprisingly, I can't recall the characters' names. Randall's star pupil is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a varsity swim stud who turned down offers from multiple Ivy League schools so he could enroll in the Coast Guard. We learn why Fischer made this decision late in the film, and it requires Kutcher to break down and cry - not a skill the actor has mastered. Davis and Kutcher are better off leaving the waterworks for the pool.
And the pool is where Guardian spends most of its lengthy 136-minute run time. Davis balances exciting rescue missions with seemingly impossible training sessions. Randall butts heads with rival instructor Skinner (Neal McDonough) over his harsh tactics, though the grizzled chief simply wants his recruits prepared for accurate, real-life rescue situations. In between dives, Fischer backstrokes through the Gentleman training manual, romancing a local townie (Melissa Sagemiller) as he rebels against the school's authority figures.
It's all acceptable, though largely predictable. This ship's destination is never in question, until the end. Discussing endings in a review is inappropriate. Without giving anything away, I'll say that the final 15 minutes of The Guardian are the worst I've seen on film this year. The coda sinks to unseen and inexcusable depths of cheese. If you choose to see Guardian and want to be rescued from the experience, leave at the two-hour mark.
The DVD includes an alternate ending, deleted scenes, two making-of featurettes, and commentary from Davis and Brinkerhoff.
That's not the only way he's filling the pool.