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The Guardian DVD Review
Theatrical Release: September 29, 2006 / Running Time: 139 Minutes / Rating: PG-13
Director: Andrew Davis
Cast: Kevin Costner (Ben Randall), Ashton Kutcher (Jake Fischer), Neal McDonough (Jack Skinner), Melissa Sagemiller (Emily Thomas), Brian Geraghty (Billy Hodge), Clancy Brown (Capt. William Hadley), Dulι Hill (Ken Weatherly), John Heard (Capt. Frank Larson), Bonnie Bramlett (Maggie McGlone), Shelby Fenner (Cate Lindsey), Michael Rady (Nick Zingaro), Peter Gail (Danny Doran), Omari Hardwick (Carl Billings), Sela Ward (Helen Randall)
Near the middle of last July, Variety broke the story that the Walt Disney Company was planning to scale back movie production, especially in the branches that weren't Walt Disney Pictures. Other news outlets soon picked up on the item, of course; it was big news. In the twenty-two years since the Touchstone Pictures banner was launched, Disney had established itself as an all-purpose studio, one which could deliver big budget spectacle, gory horror, and award-winning dramas, all within the course of a few weeks. Whether or not the general public connected Touchstone, Miramax Films, Dimension Films, and Hollywood Pictures to Mickey Mouse, they attended the films, which enabled output to keep coming, some of it from Hollywood's most esteemed, profitable or promising filmmakers. While it was not the Disney of Walt's time, there were hits and Oscar nominations abound, even as many Disney-branded live-action flicks were met with mild returns and critical condemnation.
Show business has a short memory, though, and when it became apparent that, for the fourth time in a row, Buena Vista's highest-earning releases of the year came bearing a castle logo, the company announced cutbacks and reorganizations. With franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Chronicles of Narnia in full force, an indefinite relationship with Pixar Animation Studios established,
Alas, there was some sadness ingrained in the breaking announcements, not just for the inevitable layoffs but for the proposed decrease in variety to the company's feature films, previously ensured by vast demographic-reaching. For several years now, we've given peripheral coverage to Disney's non-Disney branches, which, even if you weren't aware of the associations, have made significant contributions to modern cinema, from The Sixth Sense to Armageddon. Positive or negative, films like these were influential and widely noted.
This epic setup merely leads us to The Guardian, the second Touchstone film released following the corporate shake-up story. It is a film which boasts some degree of talent. Director Andrew Davis helmed the highly-praised Harrison Ford flick The Fugitive and, more recently, Disney/Walden's warmly-received Holes. And while it's been over a decade since star Kevin Costner has been able to boast, ΰ la Burgundy, "I'm kind of a big deal", he remains an Oscar winner and recognizable name. Yet this is a movie which can make you forget about lamenting the Disney departures of acclaimed directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and M. Night Shyamlan and simply say "Good riddance, Touchstone."
The Guardian opens with Costner's character Ben Randall doing what he does. As a rescue swimmer in the United States Coast Guard, Randall's notion of heroism involves jumping out of helicopters to brave storms and save imperiled strangers who probably haven't taken sufficient precaution. The introductory scenes lead one to suspect a movie filled with dark, wet, palpably cold rescue missions. Gladly, we're spared that when, on a job, Randall loses a casually-introduced friend and only narrowly stays alive himself. Randall reluctantly agrees to a respite from rescue swimming, during which he'll teach an A-school class.
Rather than instruct by the book, Randall leads the young recruits in his own way. He bridges the gap between theory and reality by pushing them beyond reason via hour-long water treads, oxygen deprivation drills, and staged hypothermia. From the get-go, it is apparent that among the trainees, our attentions lie squarely with Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher, claiming pre-title billing), a cocky newcomer who set swimming records in high school and boasts he'll do the same in the Coast Guard. Randall is not impressed by the swagger of "Goldfish", his nickname for Jake. Alas, their battle of wills is an uninteresting one. The extensive efforts taken to glamorize the rigors of military life don't do much for this viewer either. Between the double standards and ridiculous regiment of demanding trials, the Coast Guard appears to be the world's least appealing job, as glorious as saving lives sounds.
The standard tough-talking-authority-figure-pushes-his-troops-to-the-limit scenes -- which, like everything else in the movie, are overlong -- disappointingly don't give way to anything better.
With no likable characters to invest in, you're left pondering small things, like just how inane is it that simply being in "a Navy bar" can lead to not one but two fistfights?
The movie eventually gets to the obligatory action climax, and it's refreshingly neither as deadly dull nor prolonged as you'd expect. Still, it's plagued by a setting that dictates unclear visuals. This coupled with everything that's led up to it... the viewer can't help but be severely apathetic. Even if you've somehow seen ten or fewer movies, you can probably predict how this one turns out, as the rookie and the veteran join forces and one of them dies. I'm not spoiling anything, as the movie's trailer said the same thing. As you can bet, if your movie's marketing campaign hedges on a "Ashton or Costner: Who Dies?" query that feels more appropriate in boosting ratings for a gimmicky "ER" episode during sweeps, you're in trouble. I didn't expect much from this movie, yet even my low expectations were not met.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Guardian is the almost bizarre convergance of stars it offers. I've never been a fan of Kevin Costner; he's been in three good movies, none of which are good because of him, and one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time. Amazingly enough, that all happened in a stretch of five years and in the fifteen since, his acting has been sporadic and his most public performances have been flops. Guardian reunites him with the studio that distributed the closest thing to a success he's had this decade (2003's Open Range, which he also directed). He shares the screen with the soon-to-be-29 Ashton Kutcher, who has much more under his belt than Costner had at his age. Kutcher's resume, however, has been filled with the type of work that gets critically lampooned and recognized only by the Teen Choice Awards. Here, he tries to shed the airhead pretty boy image he gained in seven seasons of "That '70s Show." I'd rather watch him prank celebrities. In fact, I think I would have gotten more out of a six-minute segment of Costner getting "Punk'd" than the nearly two and a half hours of tired, half-assed action/drama.
VIDEO and AUDIO
Like most of Andrew Davis' directorial efforts (which included projects headlined by the likes of Steven Seagal and Sir Charles Norris), The Guardian is a film you'd expect to see made in 2.35:1, but one which actually comes in 1.85:1 flat widescreen.
From the opening, in which supposedly weighty narration gives way to crashing waves, the dynamics levels are kind of inconsistent. The audio is also busy and not really in ways which bring you into the movie's world. Crashing water, flaring moments of forgettable score, and lousy dialogue all come through fine in Dolby 5.1, though I expected a more involving and compelling sound design than this.
BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING
The first of five bonus features is an Alternate Ending, introduced by director Andrew Davis, who claims it was filmed merely as "a safety valve." Presented in fullscreen, it runs just over two minutes, differs from the actual finale slightly,
Given a separate listing, Deleted Scenes holds four fully-cut sequences (7:00), which are offered with optional commentary by Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. They too are presented in fullscreen, and while they're diverting, they're also clearly disposable. Two of the scenes find Jake and Emily engaging in some cheesy flirtations, while the other two hold further plot points for a pair of secondary characters (a female trainee and Neal McDonough's bullying assistant).
A full-length Audio Commentary also teams up director Davis and writer Brinkerhoff. Their observations tend to be limited to the usual "we filmed this in [location]", "the [element] is completely digital", and "this is [actor's name]." There's also some narration, discussion of script revisions, plenty of blank spaces, lots of name-dropping, and a bit of waxing poetic about themes explored. By this point, if you care to know how movies are made, you've surely been schooled from the several hundreds of insightful DVD bonuses out there. If you've already invested 139 minutes on the movie, you'll probably not want to repeat that time with these to talking over it. Unless you want to know how bad movies (and uninteresting commentaries) are made, you'd do well not to even attempt the sampling I did.
A standard production featurette, "The Guardian: Making Waves" (11:05), covers all the bases you'd expect. Topics tackled via behind-the-scenes and talking heads footage are the challenges and rewards of the project, the Coast Guard's extensive cooperation in making the movie, the two leading men and director Andrew Davis, research and preparation, ties to Hurricane Katrina experienced by concurrently filming in Louisiana, and technical achievements like having a fake cave in a grand water tank. It's essentially an electronic press kit piece, but with enough different voices to make it painless.
Finally, the Coast Guard tribute "Unsung Heroes: So Others May Live" (5:35) seems a bit redundant, accompanying a movie that is very much a tribute to the U.S. Coast Guard. The filmmakers sound off, as do real USCG rescue swimmers, about the treacherous calling depicted in the movie. Invoking Hurricane Katrina, with footage of the 2005 New Orleans natural disaster, yet again seems kind of tacky, but less so than the movie's reference to it.
Just three brief videos play at the start of the disc to promote The Prestige, preview Disney Blu-ray discs, and discourage DVD piracy. These same spots and only these are also found on the Sneak Peeks menu. Disney's fad of first-printing cardboard slipcovers to replicate the DVD case's artwork has been strangely carried over to this, an ordinary Touchstone debut. Even more so than the further replicative disc art, the slipcover boasts holographic rainbows. Some color and flair would have spruced up the main menu, which boringly depicts dark, cold, unclear Coast Guard rescue footage from the movie. Submenus are basic stills, accompanied by score selections.
I was in Walt Disney World just weeks before The Guardian opened in theaters, so I was exposed to the trailer, poster, and print ads more than I would have been elsewhere. The connection to my extremely pleasant vacation perhaps made me more eager and hopeful for this flick than I should have been. My level-headed, pre-WDW thoughts were the more justified, though. Kevin Costner continues his streak of weak films, Ashton Kutcher does little to justify him being taken seriously, and director Andrew Davis further feels like a one-hit wonder who lucked out in The Fugitive. The Guardian is not a terrible movie, but it's definitely not a good one, either. Intercut action sequences, tough, machismo-fueled training montages, and a cop-out climax all play out as you'd expect, with the only difference being that the setting here is the U.S. Coast Guard. If you're in the Guard or a rescued mariner, that might be enough to pique your interest. Otherwise, it's a pass.
The DVD aspires to the same mediocre standard as the movie. The alternate ending feels like merely a selling point, but at least it and the deleted scenes are worth seeing. The dry audio commentary doesn't reward the time it requires. The two short featurettes are fine but of unsurprisingly little value to those not already taken by the movie and Coast Guard rescue missions in general. As the type of disc that's sure to get a price drop by the end of the year, The Guardian is something fans can wait on (especially if they don't take advantage of drastic preorder discounts) and everyone else can skip.
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Reviewed January 18, 2007.