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The Guardian (9/10)

by Tony Medley

Much of art is derivative. Just about everything is based on something that came before, whether it’s movies or music or literature. For example, the basic melody of Judy Garland’s hit “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” was written by Frederick Chopin in 1834 (Fantasie Impromptu in C Sharp Minor) and adapted to Joseph McCarthy’s lyrics by Harry Carroll. World-renowned concert pianist Leonard Pennario once told me that all Andrew Lloyd Weber melodies came from someone else and he proved it by naming the originals when I named Weber’s songs.

So it is with film. Rarely is a modern film a true original. Just as an example, “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) is almost a scene by scene remake of “A Walk in the Sun” (1945).  So, too, “The Guardian” is remarkably similar to “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949). Kevin Costner plays John Wayne’s role and Ashton Kutcher steps in for Duke’s trainee-nemesis, John Agar.

The name Ashton Kutcher brings many thoughts to mind; young man with older woman, bad movies, good acting. I’ve seen him in many movies, most of them pretty bad, but I’ve always like what he did. I think he’s a good actor, which solidifies my position as the odd man out among critics. Here’s what I said about his performance in the turkey, “A Lot Like Love:”

“Actually the first 20 minutes or so of this film are pretty good, mainly because of Kutcher’s acting. This guy has a deft comedic touch. I just wish he’d learn how to choose his scripts, although, to give him credit, I haven’t seen many good scripts come out of Hollywood recently.”

Well, guess what? Ashton apparently took my advice, because he came across a terrific script by Ron L. Brinkerhoff, and a good director in Andrew Davis, who made an interesting film out of the potboiler TV series “The Fugitive” in 1993. Kutcher is paired with Kevin Costner and not only keeps up with him, Ashton carries the movie!

This is a story that I wouldn’t believe if it was just your typical Hollywood movie, because it seems based on a bunch of John Wayne types who only exist on a Hollywood backlot. Jake Fischer (Kutcher) is trying out to become a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer. These are guys who jump into oceans with 30 foot waves to rescue people for a living. Jake is being trained by the biggest hero of them all, Ben Randall (Costner), who has saved over 200 people. The story seems too heroic for its own good, but it is based on fact. Some of these guys jumped into the ocean during Hurricane Katrina. They are the real deal, and this movie does a good job of portraying them and the incredibly dangerous job they do. This film is a wonderful homage to some very courageous people.

The special effects (William Mesa) of the churning, burning ocean in the Bering Straights have been remarkably produced via a huge tank which was an eight-chambered, 100- x 80- foot concrete pool capable of holding ¾ of a million gallons built in front of a 50-foot-tall blue-screen wall, along with footage taken of real storms. The tank was capable of generating surging 6- to 9- foot waves, with bubbling form and cresting white caps.

The training Randall puts his recruits through is so vivid, it can be exhausting to watch. In order to be authentic, Kutcher volunteered to go through a modified “A” School training boot camp with actual Aviation Survival School instructors. Director Davis lauds Kutcher, “He did an amazing job preparing for this movie…I think he gained ten or fifteen pounds of pure muscle in his training.”

Two-thirds of the movie shows the training with only the last third devoted to the rescues. It also shows the effect that the profession has on a marriage as Ben’s wife, Helen (Sela Ward), leaves him in one of the opening scenes.

Costner does a good job, but Kutcher carries the film. To my intense delight, he shows that he is not from the Sean Penn School because he sheds real tears in the film.

            Kutcher, Costner, and Ward are aided by good performances by the entire cast, especially Melissa Sagemiller, who plays Jake’s beautiful girlfriend, Emily Thomas, John Heard (Capt. Frank Larson, the head of the “A” school), and Brian Geraghty (Hodge, one of the trainees). Neal McDonough, who plays Jack Skinner, has a role that seems to have been intended for more. Skinner is the former lead instructor of the “A” school who is replaced by Ben. It starts out as if there is going to be a conflict between the two but it never develops into much. Too bad, because I liked the quirky character he created in the short-lived TV series, “Boomtown.” A little more conflict wouldn’t have hurt.

I must admit I approached this film with a jaundiced eye. I had seen the trailer and it looked like one of those hokey Costner films I have not enjoyed in the past. To the contrary, it captured my interest at the outset and kept it throughout the entire 135-minute running time, which far exceeds my acceptable limits on the length of a film.

September 26, 2006