A Scanner Darkly

Starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. Directed by Andrew Davis.
Running Time: 99minutes.
Rated: Rated M.
The Guardian shows that they do make films like they used to. From the propaganda war films of the World War II era, through the stories of training for the various armed forces, to 80s blockbusters like An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun, as well as the tough Vietnam War films, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, there has never been a shortage of the old story of the experienced older expert training the cheeky young recruit, the hardships of the training, and the bonding between the two.

The Guardian offers a significant difference in that it is a film about the US Coast Guard and their swimming rescue unit. As is eventually highlighted, the military are trained for combat whereas the Coast Guard are not. Their training, as their motto says, is for saving lives.

The heroics in this film should mean that The Guardian serves as an effective recruiting film - and would probably have much of the same effect beyond the US.

The film has been directed by Andrew Davis who, from early Chuck Norris and Steven Seagall action films in the 1980s moved much more up-market and serious with his version of the old popular TV series, The Fugitive. While always interested in action, he has still diversified with his updating of Dial M For Murder, A Perfect Murder, and the film about teenage boys, Holes. He stages the action scenes here - rescues in dangerous seas - quite impressively.

The film is also a star vehicle for Kevin Costner. Fifteen to twenty years ago, Costner was riding high with The Untouchables, No Way Out, Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. During the 90s and to the present, he has not been held in such high esteem, despite such interesting films as Thirteen Days, about the Kennedys and the missiles of October 1962 and the western, Open Range. Here he is back on form.

Costner is initially shown in action, lowered into mountainous Alaskan seas from a helicopter and rescuing survivors from a stricken cargo ship. However, he is getting old and suffers some injuries. Unwillingly, he is transferred to Louisiana to train new recruits. He is tough and demanding, relying on experience rather than theoretical learning. Costner is perfectly believable in this macho American heroic role.

The recruit is Ashton Kutcher. This is surprise casting as Kutcher's career has been in comedies and romances. In fact, he fits the bill quite well and shows that he is capable of a wider range of performances than we might have suspected. He goes through the expected gamut: self-confident and defiant, having to learn team work, becoming involved in a casual affair with a local teacher and his having to take responsibility for the consequences, an opening up about his life and past sadness, his coming through to leadership and graduation.

There is one scene of bar fisticuffs, defending the honour against the taunts of drinking navy personnel - a bit of a surprise in a film which is light on violence and bad language.

It is easy for non-Americans to deride this kind of earnest ra-ra patriotic heroism which wears its heart on its sleeves, especially the opening and end with a story of a legend of a presence in the sea who keeps people afloat in accidents at sea until they are rescued: The Guardian. For those who don't like it, they say it is full of cliches. For those who like it, it is simply using a tried and true formula. And this is something that the public quite enjoy, comfortable with what is familiar though different.

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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