Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Guardian

My Hell and High Water Comeback

There are many, many films out there about various uniformed folk. The police and fire department probably get represented a fair bit in movies, ranging from heroic stories, to tragedies, and some even featuring them in bad light. In my opinion, first movies should always be sort of a tribute story to the boys and girls in uniform, before adding some flavour in subsequent films with more sophisticated stories that can even venture into putting some characters in negative light. Think Backdraft, where you have the good and the bad apples from the fire department. Though on the other hand, first movies can also be hampered by this approach to the storyline, for its emphasis on the introduction of the profession's job scope, in keeping things stuck to a formula, and by having characters no less than heroic.

I've always been intrigued by the sea-faring stories my old man tells me, since he's travelled around the world almost half his lifetime, working in the shipping industry. As a toddler, I was too young to recall some of these incidents when I accompanied him on these trips. Plenty of these stories involve the US Coast Guard, and old photographs captured some of these moments. Perhaps if I have the time, I'll scan some of them and put it online. I recall his account of one such incident where they had to respond to an SOS call, and had coordinated with the Coast Guard already at the incident site. The hearing of the rotors, and the sighting of the unique red-white distinct looking Jayhawk helicopters are definite relief for those in distress in the sea of complete darkness, and the multiple flares released do truly light up the sea, as if it was day.

The Guardian, taking on the formulaic approach as a first film featuring the US Coast Guard in recent times, definitely comes with a tinge of familiarity in storyline. The Japanese has already had their tribute to their equivalent of the uniformed group in the Umizaru series (its second movie being shown here as well), and if you combine that with Hollywood's Top Gun (itself a heroic tribute movie of sorts to the US Navy Pilots), you have this movie. In fact, the beginning and end structure is almost similar, with Kodiak, Alaska bookending the movie like what the Indian Ocean did for Top Gun, and both scenes being actual on-the-job action sequences. Having most of its scenes in a training school, and recognizable Top-Gun-ish moments, may make some wince of deja vu, but as I already mentioned, it's formula.

This movie's focus is on the US Coast Guard, in particular, a select group of highly trained men and women who are the Rescue Swimmers, the folks who actually take the dive from the choppers into the ocean, to approach ships in distress to coordinate the rescue missions. It's a daily risk to their lives, but their mission, their calling, is in putting the lives of others ahead of theirs. Naturally, being the best amongst the best, does make one appear to be cocky. Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is a highly decorated and dedicated rescue swimmer, having set records and being the stuff of legends with his rescue exploits. However, records are nothing, and the job is not to break records but is actually towards the noble cause of saving lives. This, is what rookie Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) has to learn, if he is to survive the course, now being taught by Randall.

Naturally, the saying of one mountain's inability to house two tigers ring true, as both men, for personal reasons, rub each other the wrong way. The stern instructor versus the proud rookie, with the former having to see a lot of qualities in the latter, with the potential to exceed his expectations, if nurtured the right way. Randall's unorthodox training methods also raises eyebrows, but to his detractors, his methods are to bridge classroom theories and safe practical sessions, with the real thing. Having to learn from the best in the business always is difficult, and underscores the differences in personalities between Randall and Fischer, one already the best, the other wanting to be, and beat the best. However, both men soon find out that they have a lot more in common, in their seeking of redemption.

The movie's well paced, with action, romance, noisy training sessions and quiet moments achieving a rare balance of screen time. Again sticking to formula, having relationships that don't really work out, are hallmarks of partners who cannot endure their partner's long absence given the innate preference to answer the never-ending call of duty. Sela Ward and Melissa Sagemiller play the romantic interests Helen Randall and Emily Thomas, adding some female presence to a movie full of testosterone set in water. The soundtrack is also top notch, with Bryan Adams, yet again contributing a song - Never Let Go, to a Costner movie.

I've been a Kevin Costner fan since young, having first watched him in the cowboy movie Silverado. I sat through 3 of his three hour long movies in the theatres - his multi-award winning Dances With Wolves, Oliver Stone's JFK, and Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp. I've enjoyed his action movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and even the classic The Untouchables. This movie will mark his attempt to return as a leading man, given softer appearances in Rumor Has It and The Upside of Anger. Ashton Kutcher might be better known for his mad antics in the television series Punk'd, but here, he ditches madcap humour for some serious drama as a Ray-Ban Cruise clone, the record breaking rookie from high school. My first Kutcher movie happened to be The Butterfly Effect, and I thought he brought some of the edginess from that role over here.

Despite being a formula movie, I'd recommend it for being one of those rare heroic movies that come out from Hollywood, paying tribute to the uniformed group it's based on. Stay tuned during the end credits for some breathtakingly beautiful scenic helicopter fly-by scenes and historical photographs of the advent of the US Coast Guard, played along to songs from the soundtrack. "Run Me In The Dirt" is fast becoming one of my favourite tunes.

"So Others May Live"

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