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, and unlike the current Flyboys, it takes no real pleasure in its cornball contrivances. It's leaden. That's something of a surprise coming from Davis, who remains best known for his propulsive big-screen version of The Fugitive, but who began his career with 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 resume includes the aptly titled Collateral Damage.) Here, you can't fault Davis for his handling of action the film's perilous open-water rescue scenes are duly visceral but he 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.
The Guardian is not without its token pleasures, chiefly Costner, who's aged very nicely into playing over-the-hill former golden boys (see Tin Cup and The Upside of Anger) and who here gets a couple of affecting scenes with a brassy barroom blues singer (the legendary Bonnie Bramlett) that are all about coming to terms with the ebbing of youth. More surprising is Kutcher, whose shit-eating grin and I-fucked-Demi-Moore 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. (I forewarn you lest you risk choking on your popcorn that there are a couple of scenes in which Kutcher actually emotes, which, on the sliding scale that finds Josh Hartnett a suitable leading man, might qualify Kutcher as the Laurence Olivier of the MySpace generation.)
But The Guardian isn't really about growing old or growing up. It's about all the verisimilitude Hollywood dollars can buy, from the custom-built wave tank where much of the movie was shot to all the rigorous training the actors were subjected to so as to appear capable in their roles. But what's the good of all that "authenticity" in a movie where the crises and characters are so hollow they don't need to tread water to float? The Guardian is being released by the Touchstone Pictures arm of the Walt Disney company, and it is, I would wager, exactly the kind of movie that Disney studio head Dick Cook had in mind when he recently decided to cut back the studio's annual production quota to focus on more surefire tentpole fare like Pirates of the Caribbean. In other words, it's not serious enough to take seriously and not flashy enough to get by on thrills alone. To be sure, there are worse ways to spend an early fall afternoon, but this is that rare movie that leaves you pining for the Jerry Bruckheimer touch.