As 'The Sentinel' opens, we learn there's never been a traitor in the U.S. Secret Service -- until now. Someone is planning to assassinate President Ballentine (David Rasche), and all signs point to Agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas), one of the organization's most trusted agents. Not helping Garrison's case is the fact that he's been carrying on a covert affair with First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger), and that the Service's lead investigator David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) holds a grudge against Garrison over an earlier affair. With time running out to prove his innocence, Garrison will have to use all the skills he's learned in his decades on the job in order to outpace Breckinridge, prevent the details of his affair with the First Lady from being made public, and hunt down the real assassin.
Am I wrong to mistake 'The Sentinel' for a film from 1986? It would have made a great vehicle for Douglas in his prime -- back when his name above the marquee guaranteed tens of millions at the box office. He almost single-handedly created a cottage industry of hi-tech thrillers about shady bad boys who find themselves on the wrong side of the moral fence and must prove their innocence while nabbing the truly bad guy ('Disclosure,' 'The Star Chamber,' 'Black Rain,' 'Fatal Attraction,' et. al). It's too bad, then, that 'The Sentinel' came out in 2006, about twenty years too late. All of its plot twists and "shocking" revelations are easy to spot from a mile away, and Douglas' supposedly sexy scenes with Basinger are about as erotic as, well, watching your grandparents have sex.
'The Sentinel' is one of those movies that is efficient, yet ultimately unnecessary. No offense to Douglas, but I suffered severe deja vu watching him run around doing his 'Basic Instinct' bad-cop-in-trouble thing, only looking a bit mummified this time around. Yes, I'm being shallow to focus on an actor's appearance, but with his stark gray hair and recent facelift, his joints just seem a bit creaky. Had Douglas and Sutherland switched roles, perhaps the film might have worked better. As he continues to prove each week on '24,' no one does an agent-on-the-run better than Sutherland. He also has the edginess, the seething anger and enough smoldering intensity that I'd believe him banging the First Lady far more readily than I believe Douglas.
Also a problem in 'The Sentinel' is that the real bad guy is obvious almost the moment he walks on-screen. I believe it was Roger Ebert who first pointed out the "odd man out" rule of thrillers, meaning that the one character who seems to have nothing to do with the plot is the killer, because otherwise there would be no reason for him or her to be in the movie. That's the case with 'The Sentinel,' and it was so blatant I laughed for about five minutes after the mastermind behind the assassination was (finally) revealed -- do filmmakers really think today's audiences are not hip to these cheap screenplay contrivances by now? If you're going to make a routine thriller, the least you can do is give us a great villain.
Admittedly, I was still entertained by 'The Sentinel.' It's kind of like one of those guilty-pleasure Lifetime movies -- only with the genders reversed and bigger stars than Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Nouri. There are also a couple of pretty good actions scenes, including an attempt to capture Douglas at a crowded mall, and a cat-and-mouse between Douglas and Sutherland that is fairly suspenseful. The film also looks slick, the pace is fast-moving, and the score by Christopher Beck is an interesting mix of old-school orchestra and modern techno-lite. I even liked Eva Longoria, stuck in the I'm-on-break-from-'Desperate Housewives'-so-what-else-am-I-gonna-do-anyway? role of Sutherland's rookie partner. She stands around wearing fancy Prada suits, repeating everything Sutherland says, and adds so little to the story that for a while I thought perhaps she was the killer. Too bad, because that would have by far been the most interesting surprise in an otherwise woefully unsurprisingly thriller.
Uh, oh. Has Blu-ray developed a new kind of venereal disease? You might call it Talladega-itis, in honor of 'Talladega Nights,' which won my vote for the worst next-gen transfer of 2006. Way too dark, with the weirdest contrast I've ever seen, it was as if the telecine artists conducted the whole operation wearing those Blu-Blockers sunglasses you see on late-night infomercials. 'The Sentinel' isn't quite that bad, but it's close -- I'm not sure what the filmmakers are thinking when they make their movies look like this on video.
First, the good news. As 'The Sentinel' is a brand-new release, of course the source is pristine. Blacks are excellent, there is no grain (or if there was, it has been CGI'd into oblivion) and there are no color "imperfections," as everything has been so color timed and balanced and enhanced that it is hyper-real. Detail also holds up as well as one could expect for such a highly-polished image -- I could make out every pore on Michael Douglas' face during close-ups.
Now, the bad news. The contrast is just plain weird -- the upper range has been darkened to such an extent that depth is noticeably flattened. Yet the very high-end has been blown out, so whites still bloom. That makes every scene too murky yet not faded-looking. It also does nothing for color reproduction, as even vibrant hues seem burned-out, as if they've been processed using that oft-used Photoshop tool. In fact, this moviue looks more like a videogame than it does a movie. I know I'm being rather harsh by not even giving a three-star video rating to this one, but I was so distracted throughout 'The Sentinel' by the whacked-out video that I just couldn't get past it to enjoy the movie. Stylistic choice or not, his just isn't what great high-def is supposed to be about.
Well, at least 'The Sentinel' sounds good. Fox offers up another DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track, one that is neither overwhelming nor underwhelming. But when it comes to action, it definitely delivers. (Note: Due to current limitations in Blu-ray hardware, this review pertains only to the "core" 1.5mbps DTS track extracted from the Lossless Master Audio encode.)
Raw tech specs are excellent, as you would expect for a recent big-ticket Hollywood thriller, featuring fab fidelity across the entire frequency range, with nice and deep low bass and pronounced mid-range. Christopher Beck's score comes particularly alive in the mix, swelling nicely out of the front speakers with its mix of plaintative strings and clicky electronic percussion. Dialogue is also front and center, with nice volume balance compared to the rest of the soundtrack.
Surrounds are a mixed bag. Every once in a while there's a nice sense of ambiance, with the odd effect thrown to the rears, but overall the soundfield is front-heavy. It does kick into high gear, however, during the film's action sequences. There are about three big chase scenes in the movie, and all deliver the goods, with lots of neat discrete pans between channels, and air-tight imaging between channels. These scenes were so good that I really longed for such immersion through the rest of the flick.
'The Sentinel' comes to Blu-ray with fairly substantial extras, a package that for once matches the standard-def DVD bulletpoint for bulletpoint. (All video-based material is presented in full 1080p video, which is a nice plus.) As for the supplements themselves, they largely concentrate on the film's subject matter, not the making of the film itself.
Let's start with the featurettes. "In the President's Shadow" (8 minutes) is your typical glib tribute to the Secret Service. All of the main cast and crew (Michael Douglas, Eva Longoria, Kiefer Sutherland, etc.) offer laudatory comments about the agency, and a few retired personnel describe some of rigors of the job. "The Secret Service: Building on a Tradition of Excellence" (13 minutes) is more of the same -- same interviews, same cast and crew, same retired Secret Service agents. Why these weren't just combined into one single feature, I do not know. The second is definitely superior, however, with some good background on the highly, um, secretive organization, and interesting archival still and video footage. I also learned some fascinating factoids, such as that the Secret Service no longer protects the widow of a deceased president once they remarry. Interesting -- didn't know that.
Next are four Deleted Scenes, all with optional commentary by screenwriter George Nolfi. Nothing here is all that exciting... just three scene extensions with the Garrison character, and an excised confrontation with Breckinridge. There is also an Alternate Ending, but it's more of a coda between Michael Douglas and Kim Basinger. It also features one of the most laughably bad rear-projection process shots ever. Wisely, it was cut.
Perhaps the best extra on the disc is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Clark Johnson and Nolfi. It is not the greatest track I've ever heard, but it is the only supplement here that offers any info on the actual making of the movie. Though the pair quickly grate with all the back-patting over how "accurate" they were to real Secret Service protocol (do we care?), they eventually get into the movie, including breakdowns of how the big set-pieces were filmed (including the pretty snazzy mall-chase sequence) and, of course, how great the cast was. But beware, George Bush supporters -- Johnson spends a good deal of time bashing Dubya, enough that Nolfi frequently chimes in to change the subject.
Last is the film's Theatrical Trailer. Shockingly, there is not the usual bevy of promos for other Fox Blu-ray titles.
'The Sentinel' would have been a pretty routine thriller in the late '80s, but today it plays more like a well-made, big-budgeted cable thriller. For that reason, I suppose it's no surprise that the film failed to make much of a splash at the box office, though I expect it will find a bigger audience on video. Too bad Fox delivers a Blu-ray release with a transfer I really disliked. I was distracted by the weird post-processing, and just couldn't get past it. The soundtrack is a winner, though, and there is a full suite of extras including Blu-ray exclusive interactive scene deconstructions and a trivia track. Give it a rent if you're interested in the movie, and to check out the picture quality -- maybe you'll like it better than I did.