Rescue on the High Seas 

The Guardian almost drowns but manages to pull through

It's no easy task joining Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford in the over-50-action-hero club, but Kevin Costner does just that with considerable success in The Guardian, an entertaining but overlong look at the United States Coast Guard. What's even more impressive, though, is that he and Ashton Kutcher share quite a bit of screen chemistry and neither of them ruins the movie with his mere presence.

In the first third of the three-act film, Costner's Ben Randall has a traumatic experience while on a rescue mission and is subsequently asked to teach at "A" school, the Coast Guard's training program for rescue swimmers. To give you an idea of how difficult the program is, according to the film, there are 39,000 men and women in the Coast Guard, but only 280 are rescue swimmers. Randall, who's painfully unqualified to do anything else, reluctantly takes the job.

At the academy, he meets hotshot high school swimming champion Jake Fischer (Kutcher), who doesn't buy into the "team" concept that's so essential to saving lives. "Nobody really appreciates us until they need us," Randall says, and it's intriguing to see the unique training that goes into saving a life on the open seas. Among other things, the recruits have to tread water for an hour, be fully immersed in freezing water until they reach hypothermia, and learn to release themselves from a clinging survivor who's dragging them down. These are fascinating and relevant scenes that lend real insight into the training process.

Not as relevant or necessary to the film are Randall's frequent attempts to fix his failed marriage with wife Helen (Sela Ward) and Jake's romance with Emily (Melissa Sagemiller), a local schoolteacher. But given that this type of drivel is mandatory in such machismo-laden stories, it's a compliment to say the romantic subplots are at least tolerable interludes to the training and action.

Although the middle (training/male bonding) section should be shorter, the film is also hindered by an extended third act that is so drawn-out, it makes the film nearly beyond rescue. Fortunately, by then the audience likes Fischer and Randall enough to follow them back to Kodiak, Alaska, which is Randall's home base, and are eager to see them work together on rescue missions.

Ordinarily moviegoers who aren't automatically drawn to see a movie simply because of Costner and Kutcher will stay far away from anything that stars such stars, and with good reason. Mercifully, they work quite well together and each holds his own in the realm of drama. That's right: Kutcher actually shows off some legitimate acting chops, and although his abilities are limited, his talent is in no way a hindrance to enjoying the movie. And to his credit, Costner's sage and jaded veteran is likeable in the same way that his Crash Davis was a wonderful mentor to the young and impressionable Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) in Bull Durham. What's more, Costner's 51-year-old body handles the physical action scenes very well.

If director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) didn't need 139 minutes to guide the movie through its three-part structure, and cut out the bland romance and tough talk, it would be exponentially more enjoyable. But because the action and training scenes are new and exhilarating, and the symbiotic bond between Randall and Fischer doesn't seem forced, this is a movie worth seeing.

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