There's the grizzled senior chief swimmer (Kevin Costner) who arrives home from work one day to find his neglected wife (Sela Ward) moving out. Of course, there's a deadly snafu at sea and the ensuing post-traumatic stress to send our hero from the stormy Bering to a tranquil teaching post. There, naturally, he meets a cocky young cadet (Ashton Kutcher) who must be a wise-ass because he's the only recruit who shows up for boot camp sporting aviator shades. And don't forget the comely townie (Melissa Sagemiller) who's interested only in "casual" relationships. And that's just the first 20 minutes.
Directed by Andrew Davis, The Guardian is scaled as an epic, but the script (by first-time screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff) is like a 1940s pro-military quickie decked out with more padding than a Berber carpet. That this leaden movie takes no pleasure in its cornball contrivances comes as something of a surprise from Davis, maker of the propulsive big-screen version of The Fugitive as well as a series of smart and highly efficient B-actioners that included two of Steven Seagal's best vehicles, Above the Law and Under Siege. (Admittedly, Davis' more recent résumé includes Collateral Damage.) The film's open-water rescue scenes are duly visceral, but Davis can't disguise his fatigue with the material, and that's the sort of thing that can make a movie sink faster than muscle in the pool.
Costner has aged nicely into playing over-the-hill former golden boys (see Tin Cup and The Upside of Anger), and he gets a couple of affecting scenes with a brassy barroom blues singer (the legendary Bonnie Bramlett). More surprising is Kutcher, whose shit-eating grin and I-fucked-Demi strut are well-suited to the part of a preening high school swim champ who has a thing or two to learn about selfless heroism. On the sliding scale that finds Josh Hartnett a suitable leading man, Kutcher might be the Laurence Olivier of the MySpace generation.
But The Guardian isn't really about growing old or growing up. It's about custom-built wave tanks. But what's the good of "authenticity" in a movie where the crises and characters are so hollow they don't need to tread water to float? It's not serious enough to take seriously and not flashy enough to get by on thrills alone. This is that rare movie that leaves you pining for the Jerry Bruckheimer touch.