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That Sinking Feeling

This modern-day Top Gun succumbs to watery cliches.

There's something comic -- and a little spooky -- about the sight of Kevin Costner in rubber flippers and a diving mask. Granted, it's been more than a decade since the $180 million fiasco of Waterworld, but you'd think that an older, wiser, fleshier Costner would hesitate before so much as sticking a big toe in the ocean. Here he is, though, decked out in twenty pounds of amphibious gear, for his leading role in The Guardian, a none-too-thrilling tribute to U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers.

In heaving seas and on dry land, this is a thoroughly conventional piece of business that, like half a dozen other recent movies, seeks to capitalize on the post-9/11 popularity of rescue workers. As a consequence, the Coast Guard, always a kind of second-class citizen among the military services, finally has a Hollywood recruiting film all its own. One co-starring Ashton Kutcher, no less.

Anyone who's seen An Officer and a Gentleman, G.I. Jane or Annapolis -- or their World War II-era antecedents -- knows the drill. A class of young recruits, willing but raw, begins a rigorous training program under the watchful eye of an experience-hardened teacher who has their best interests in mind and doesn't mind kicking their asses. The kids who are physically weak or who have insurmountable character flaws wash out of the program while the strong survive and, by graduation day, gain the respect of their mentor. Usually, at least one of them finds time to fall in love. Then, in the last scene, the mettle of the young hero or heroes is tested in a sudden, real-life encounter with the enemy.

In The Guardian, the enemy is the unpredictable ocean itself -- a fact established early on when Costner's intrepid Senior Chief Ben Randall, a Coast Guard legend reputed to have saved 200 people (or is it 300?) from certain death at sea, finds himself chin-deep in storm-tossed waters in the Gulf of Alaska. Before you can say Moby Dick, a Guard helicopter crashes, Ben loses his entire crew to the icy waves, and he's promptly sent off by the boss for a rest cure -- an eighteen-week stint as lead instructor at the service's elite "A-School" (you could call it Top Fin), where new rescue swimmers are trained. Darkened by tragedy and beset by marital problems (this workaholic's fed-up wife declares: "It's time for me to rescue myself"), he starts having nightmares and undertakes a steady diet of codeine and Wild Turkey.

But Randall's sense of duty knows no limit. While putting his young charges (the "goldfish") through their paces -- they must tread water, fully dressed, for a solid hour, endure swimming pools laced with ice and survive oxygen-deprivation drills -- he takes special interest in his cocky star pupil, Jake Fischer (Kutcher), who was a swimming champion in high school but has lots to learn yet about Life and Death. While his fellow students fall by the wayside, Jake goes after his famous instructor's long-held training records and starts up a seemingly no-strings romance with the inevitable local beauty (Melissa Sagemiller). Driven and arrogant, he couldn't be further from the slacker Kutcher played on That '70s Show. Toss in the usual training-school rivalries, male bonding and nights on the town, and the formula is complete. There's even a machismo-drenched inter-service bar fight with guys from the Navy, from which the proud Coast Guardians emerge bloodied but victorious -- or at least equal in the eyes of the world.

Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, Collateral Damage) is at his best in the dangerous-looking sea-rescue sequences that open and close the movie, but its 136-minute length is nothing short of excruciating. Screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff could use a little boot camp himself -- at least where it concerns writing dialogue. At least when Costner and Kutcher are submerged, they can't talk.

The adventure concludes with a fishing boat floundering in angry seas (think The Perfect Storm), and there's the suggestion that one of our departed heroes shall now live beneath the waves for all time, there to safeguard the lives of wayward seafarers. Oh, brother. The Greek gods must be cringing. On the other hand, the divers probably only had to tread water for thirty minutes or so; The Guardianmanages to do it for more than two hours.

 
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