The Guardian is a complex character study of two rescue swimmers serving in the Coast Guard's search and rescue branch. Focusing the film on people rather than their job is a smart move, because frankly search and rescue oriented action movies almost never work. Saving people just isn't as glamorous as we like to make it sound. Real heroes are nothing like Rambo or John McClane, they're quiet guys who simply go to work and get their job done.
Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is one of those quiet guys, and he gets the job done better than almost anyone. He's the Coast Guard's mostly heavily decorated rescue swimmer, and though now long past forty he's still best of the best at what he does. When a rescue mission goes awry, wiping out his entire support team, Ben ends up questioning whether he's stayed on the job too long. Physically he's still up to the task, but have years of trauma and stress taken their toll mentally?
To find the answer, his commander forces him to temporarily take a job as a trainer and shaper of new recruits. Mixed in with his class is Jake Fischer, played by Ashton Kutcher, but the film takes its time in making Fischer its focus. At first, except for a cocky smirk and the fact that he looks like Ashton Kutcher, Fischer sort of blends into the crowd. Usually a movie like this singles the special recruit out right away, but The Guardian just sort of drops hints, building and building on the character until somewhere about midway through the film he's fully front and center. Still, the script never abandons its team concept. Rescue swimmers have to rely on each other, and I like the way the movie continues paying at least some service to that philosophy throughout, even in the face of overwhelming star power.
As a way of getting to know exactly what it takes to do the dangerous jobs these guys do, The Guardian does a great job. If you're a member of the Coast Guard, you're probably going to love the hell out of this movie. For the rest of us, though the characters and performances are strong, the film runs a little long. I like how character oriented it tries to be, but it almost goes overboard, spending too much time sitting around in bars knocking back beers, at tables sipping coffee, or in houses where Costner and Kutcher's characters banter with their women. Sure all that builds more into the characters, but at some point enough is enough. We get the picture, let's get this plot moving.
Still, I think screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff deserves some credit for crafting a script that actually makes something interesting out of a pretty boring subject. As a documentary on the Discovery channel rescue swimming might be exciting, as a movie it's a little harder to keep an audience's attention. Though longer than it should be and at times somewhat clumsy, The Guardian manages that much.