Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers are some serious bad-asses. They regularly put their life on the line for anyone stupid enough to go sailing without bothering to check the weather. Nothing in the following review should be considered a slam on what they do, which is impressive and heroic. It's just a shame that the movie about their exploits is not really that great.
It's difficult to put a fresh twist on the old grizzled veteran and cocky young apprentice sub-genre. So The Guardian director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) doesn't even try. He parcels out more of the same ol' same ol' in the tale of Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) and hotshot recruit Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher.) Randall has paid the price for his devotion to sea rescue in Alaska by carrying both physical and emotional baggage to a new assignment, training the next generation of rescue swimmers.
Costner strikes the right note of gruff and compassion in the Coast Guard's "A" school, and Kutcher is better than expected when required to drop the smart-ass act and come out with his own deep driving secret. Their relationship comes off as more natural than some in this type of movie, but it's at the service of a story that can almost be laid out by the viewer five minutes after the DVD is put in the player.
Director Davis can still stage some big action sequences and this movie has a nice selection. Rather than slathering on the action, though, it's used sparingly at the beginning and the end, with the lion's share of the too-long two hours and twenty minutes going to training footage and the relationships between Costner and Kutcher and the women in their life, Costner's soon-to-be ex-wife (Sela Ward) and Kutcher's new girlfriend (Melissa Sagemiller). But don't fret, there is a training montage set to rock music, a barroom brawl, and the ending mission where the pupil comes into his own. There is even a scene where (An Officer and a Gentleman fans take note) Kutcher does everything but yell out "I got nowhere else to go!" while (I kid you not) Costner sprays him with a hose and badgers him to quit. The whole thing is done in a highly polished but paint-by-numbers manner.
The Coast Guard cooperated with the filming and many actual Rescue Swimmers appear as instructors. This increases the realism of the movie, especially the training and rescue scenes, but the trade-off is the time spent on what is essentially Coast Guard propaganda. The core story of an old timer and a young kid is still a stale premise that needs a loose touch to be reinvented. In this case, viewers just get a lesson in the heroism of the least known member of the armed services and a very familiar tale.
The transfer on this one-disc release is very impressive. Many of the rescue scenes take place at night in heavy seas but it's always very clear what is happening. Davis can really stage a complicated action piece and they are pretty fun to look at.
The most interesting extra is an alternate ending. Davis introduces it by trying to avoid saying what becomes clear by reading between the lines of his comments. The filmmakers were willing to sell-out on their "vision" for the ending if it meant getting the film released. One key element of the actual ending is changed, so there is only about 30 seconds different between the used ending and the alternate ending, but it does change the whole tone of the end of the movie.
In addition to the alternate ending, there are four other deleted scenes. All of them would have probably added some nuances to the main characters but this movie did not need to be any longer, and cutting the scenes was clearly the right move. In fact, it would have probably been a better movie if about another 20 minutes had been loped off.
There are two featurettes, one a standard making-of documentary and the other a short tribute to the real-life Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers. In both of these extras, the admiration, well earned, that the filmmakers have for these heroic men is very clear. There is also a lot of discussion about how the water stunts were shot to increase realism and the technical advice provided by the real-life Rescue Swimmers.
Finally, Davis and screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff provide a commentary. They are both founts of information about the movie itself and the Coast Guard and also discuss how Hurricane Katrina forced them to move their production from New Orleans to Shreveport. It's a nice addition. In fact, it sums up the disc as a whole. The movie and extras are nice, professionally done, sometimes interesting, just nothing you might go out of your way to obtain.