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The Guardian

It's surprising to consider that barely any films have been made about the U.S. Coast Guard — the nation's second-oldest branch of the military (originally the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service) pursues a variety of missions, from search-and-rescue to maritime security and law enforcement. And when things go wrong at home, it's America's "first fleet" that responds to disasters like Hurricane Katrina with a combination of sea and air resources. However, after The Guardian (2006), the service is bound to be synonymous with its most elite group — the rescue swimmers — of which there are a mere 280, who voluntarily place themselves in harm's way to pull souls from drowning ships, often in treacherous seas. Kevin Costner stars as Senior Chief Ben Randall, a veteran rescue swimmer with career saves that are rumored to near 300. However, those numbers don't happen overnight, and while Randall has stayed with the rescue swimmer team at Kodiak, Alaska, well into his forties, the stress of the job has put his marriage to wife Helen (Sela Ward) on the rocks. Even worse, after they separate Randall goes on an ill-fated mission, doomed to be the only survivor. Sent to the Coast Guard's "A" School as an instructor, Randall is expected to take some time to sort things out and decide when he's ready to return to active duty. But Randall doesn't see teaching as second-string work, and before long he takes a new batch of recruits and does everything possible to close the gap between training exercises and actual conditions, improvising challenges to flush out the weakest cadets and get their "DOR" — drop on request. Collegiate swimming champion Jake Fischer (Aston Kutcher) naively singles himself out for the Senior Chief's special attention, boldly declaring that he will break all of the "A" School's swim records, and even Randall's career rescues. However, even if "Goldfish" is the fastest in the pool, his off-base activities — including romancing a local schoolteacher (Melissa Sagemiller) and getting into a brawl at a Navy bar — are what forces Randall to look into his past, trying to determine why the young man would turn down an Ivy League education for a life of jumping out of helicopters.

If The Guardian is nothing terribly new, then it at least will be popular with fans of action/drama fare, and its formula places it squarely in the company of several popular movies — Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, and even Stripes are among the best-known entries in the "boot camp" sub-genre, which is always marked by the collision between a brash, talented cadet who's a bit of a head-case and the older sage who serves as both mentor and gatekeeper. Inevitably, Kevin Costner as Ben Randall is going to shake down his cadets like Lou Gosset Jr. — which means that the only way a film like The Guardian can succeed is to make the setting and characters fresh enough to make the story worth watching again. For the most part, it works — a well-designed boot-camp movie is about as reliable as a sunset, and the two leads are well-chosen for the material. Kevin Costner continues to age gracefully as one of the screen's most reliable leading men, still a bit of a maverick, but now with years of subtext etched into his face. Ashton Kutcher is a good match — physically, he looks every inch an Olympic athlete (reportedly he trained for several months before shooting), and while it may be some time before he's known as an actor rather than being unspeakably gorgeous, he's well used in the part, particularly in sequences where he's expected to be young and a bit flaky. Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) stitches the story together well, in particular the complicated ocean-rescue sequences, which were achieved through both digital means and a custom-built wave-generating tank. And while scenarist Ron L. Brinkerhoff's story appears to come to an end at least twice before the 140-min. film wraps, his original ending — rather than any studio-imposed "safe" choice — is what made the final cut.

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Buena Vista's DVD release of The Guardian features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include an informative commentary with director Andrew Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff the featurettes "The Guardian: Making Waves" (11 min.) and ""Unsung Heroes: So Others May Live" (5 min.), four deleted scenes, and an alternate ending. Keep-case.

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