First rule about Coast Guard rescue flicks set in Alaska: They should not last longer than the average time it takes to get to Alaska from, say, anywhere in the Lower 48.
Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher’s “The Guardian” drags on like a slow boat ride to Anchorage, its standard-issue heroics and flavorless dialogue gone stale long before the movie arrives at the big, valorous finish.
Like almost any well-intentioned tale of selfless rescuers, the movie has its potent moments, director Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”) crafting hearty action sequences of men hurling themselves into peril to save others.
The drama and emotion behind the action is so frosty, though, you could die of exposure by the time “The Guardian” lumbers to its climax.
It’s hard to stay connected to the characters as anything more than fleeting do-gooders. Their devotion to duty is so single-minded they come off as two-dimensional figures.
Despite the movie’s remote settings and potentially refreshing glimpse of a branch of the service not often depicted on screen, the story is a painfully familiar one about an aging mentor passing the baton to an eager protege.
Costner’s Ben Randall is a legendary Coast Guard swimmer based in Kodiak, Alaska, where he leaps from helicopters into frigid, churning waters to haul drowning fishermen, tourists and others to safety.
Tragedy strikes during a cargo-boat rescue, so traumatizing Ben that he’s dispatched to the classroom at the Coast Guard’s elite school, where he oversees the instruction of a fresh crop of swimmers.
Ben applies unconventional training methods to prepare the wannabe rescuers, who include arrogant recruit Jake Fischer (Kutcher), a high-school swimming champ with a tragic past of his own.
The two men clash, bond, clash some more, and gradually build a sort of father-son relationship of respect and affection. And of course, they eventually must team up for a daring rescue in the Bering Sea that pounds the movie’s theme of self-sacrifice home with a sledgehammer.
Costner plays his typical hybrid of grizzly bear and teddy bear, though as with everything else about “The Guardian,” his likable grouch act wears thin simply because it all plods on so long.
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Aiming to show he can be more than a clown, Kutcher overdoes the gung-ho disciple routine, his Jake coming off so stiffly at times that he’s like the poster boy for a recruitment ad.
Screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff’s predictable script leaves both actors treading water. The two characters are clumsily presented as essentially the same man at different stages, down to their calamitous pasts and their relationships with women (Sela Ward for Costner and Melissa Sagemiller for Kutcher), who also could be the same person a couple of decades apart.
Kutcher and Sagemiller are stuck muttering insufferably bland mating-ritual small talk, while the filmmakers tack on an awkward postscript to wrap their relationship up with a pretty bow.
Bonnie Bramlett highlights the supporting cast as a crusty, rusty bar owner who’s an old pal of Ben’s. Neal McDonough and Clancy Brown are the standouts among the fellow Guardsmen, though John Heard as the training-school commander and Dule Hill as a recruit seem to have gone under the knife in the editing room, their roles amounting to little more than walk-ons.
It’s uncertain whether “The Guardian” could have been salvaged with more cuts, particularly of the excessive training montages and banal interpersonal moments. But at least viewers would not have had to spend so much time in icy waters if Davis had aborted the mission quicker.
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