The latest in Disney's ever-increasing line of feel-good movies about real-life do-gooders in extraordinary circumstances, 'The Guardian' follows recent releases 'Invincible,' 'Glory Road,' 'Men of Honor' and 'Annapolis' to Blu-ray and, quite frankly, the overkill leaves this one to suffer by comparison. Overlong and all-too-familiar, 'The Guardian' has got the usual marketing points down pat -- Action! Heroism! Romance! Ashton Kutcher in his underwear! -- but what is doesn't generate is genuine excitement or much empathy for its characters. Instead, it is paint-by-numbers filmmaking, and even 1080 lines of resolution can't elevate it from the dustbin of forgettable demo material.
Kevin Costner stars as Senior Chief Ben Randall, a living naval legend who has broken more records and saved more lives than any rescue swimmer in history. But after his wife (Sela Ward) leaves him, and a freak accident leaves him questioning his abilities, Randall's commanding officers reassign him to a Naval training school. Before you can say, "Mr. Holland's Opus Hits the High Seas," Randall is inspiring a group of young cadets, where his unconventional teaching methods will draw ire from the upper ranks, but win him nothing but devotion from his pupils. Cocky Jake Fischer (Kutcher), meanwhile, is no ordinary student. A once-scrappy loser so desperate to prove his worth, he challenges Randall at every step, regardless of the consequences. But when a real-life disaster requires Randall and Fischer to work together to rescue lives, our heroes will put their differences aside to save the world.
It's easy to see why 'The Guardian' would appeal to Costner. After all, he's already saved the world many times over -- he was 'The Bodyguard,' 'The Postman' and an 'Untouchable,' he saved 'Waterworld,' he 'Danced with Wolves,' and... well, you get the picture. And for a guy who has suffered so many critical slings and arrows recently, he's surprisingly the best part of 'The Guardian.' He brings a maturity and gravity to the role that compliments his aging, curmudgeonly-tiger demeanor perfectly -- quite frankly, playing a wizened old asshole seems to suit him. The same can't be said for Kutcher, who actually seems a bit intimidated playing off Costner, to the extent that he doesn't seem cocky enough. I don't dislike Kutcher, but I do find it hard to separate Kutcher from his larger-than-life real-life persona. Perhaps they should have cast James Franco? (See my reviews of 'Flyboys' and 'Annapolis' to understand that little in-joke.)
'The Guardian' could have also used a bit more action. The film's opening and closing are truly exciting -- especially the kick-off rescue sequence with Costner proving himself a capable action hero. Unfortunately, it's all the boring melodrama in between that drags. I'm just not sure why this movie needs to be 139 minutes long. All the Costner backstory could have been greatly compressed with no harm done, the training sequences feel interminable, and the Kutcher romance with 'Sorority Boys' alum Melissa Sagemiller seems to have drifted in from another, unrelated movie. Director Andrew ('The Fugitive,' 'Under Siege') Davis knows how to direct action, and he seems to have a great passion for the Costner material, but seems to care little about the other stuff. I never thought I'd hear myself say such a thing, but Kevin Costner is the only reason to see this movie.
Disney offers up 'The Guardian' on a BD-50 dual-layer disc, which gives the 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer lots of room to play. The results are nice, if a bit rough around the edges.
The 1.85:1 widescreen image can often look dark, with the nighttime and out-at-sea scenes sometimes losing detail in the shadows, where grain is more apparent. Depth also flattens out here, though the image is still crisp and colorful. Hues are nicely saturated, with no obvious chroma noise or bleeding. Fleshtones at times veer slightly to the reds, but blacks remain rock solid throughout. Contrast is good across the entire grayscale, although at times whites teeter on the edge of blowing out, which sometimes gives a digital-looking edge to the presentation. The source material, however, is in perfect shape. All in all, a solid four-star effort from Buena Vista.
'The Guardian really delivers with its soundtrack, which Disney has given the uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround treatment. Anytime Kevin Costner is in a helicopter, rescuing someone lost at sea, the film sounds terrific. These moments rank alongside the best next-gen soundtracks I've heard, from 'Pearl Harbor' (on Blu-ray) to 'The Perfect Storm' (on HD DVD). Surround activity is sure-fire, with pinpoint precision to directed discrete effects and pans between channels that are seamless. Blades roar and waves crash, yet even through it all dialogue remains surprisingly intelligible. I even watched the film's opening sequence three times, just for the fun of it.
Unfortunately, these action-oriented good parts sound so good that they outshine the rest, which can be pretty dull in comparison. The soundtrack goes all front heavy, though dynamics remain first-rate. Low bass is always strong and tight, with clean mid- and high-range. Dialogue, again, remains pitch-perfect. I wish the mix had been more aggressive and immersive throughout the film's overlong 139 minutes, but when it does kick in, watch out.
Disney ports over all of the extras from the standard-def DVD of 'The Guardian' to this Blu-ray release, but it is a straightforward batch of supplements that doesn't make much of an impact.
The two featurettes are far too predictable. The 11-minute "'The Guardian': Making Waves" is just another extended commercial for the movie, with the usual cast and crew interviews and on-location footage. The only interesting factoid of note is that Hurricane Katrina hit during filming, which required a last-minute change of location for much of the shooting of the movie. A little better is "Unsung Heroes: So Others May Live," which salutes the real-life heroes of the Coast Guard. Some bracing footage of Katrina rescues is included, and it is far more fascinating than the dull making-of featurette. Too bad it is only six minutes long.
Next we have four Deleted Scenes plus an Alternate Ending (the former with optional commentary from director Andrew Davis and screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff, the latter only with an intro by Davis). The material runs about ten minutes in total. I could have done without the deleted material -- the movie is certainly long enough -- although I preferred the alternate ending to what made the final cut. It's still not great, but it is more satisfying.
Finally, the highlight is the screen-specific audio commentary with Davis and Brinkerhoff, which is a very likable track, though again so straightforward that it dries out well before the two-hour mark. But the pair are definitely informative, covering all the bases -- the story, casting, working closely with the Coast Guard to ensure absolutely authenticity, the effect of Katrina on the production, and the special effects, which often required the use of giant wind machines and the actors being submerged for hours in big tanks of water. I can't say this is a must-listen for casual viewers, but fans of teh film should find this easily the best extra on the disc.
'The Guardian' is a polished if ultimately forgettable action-inspirational flick. Kevin Costner, however, continues his career resurgence with a fine performance that's the highlight of the movie. This Blu-ray release is quite solid, with a strong transfer and soundtrack and decent enough extras. Still, the re-playability factor on this one seems slim, so you might want to give it a rent instead of a blind buy.