Many of the best moments in The Guardian are subtle generational touches: grizzled Coast Guard rescue swimmer Kevin Costner sharing a subtle eye-roll and smirk with his aging contemporaries as they survey their eager young trainees, or Costner glancing over hard-case trainee Ashton Kutcher, for the first time seriously considering him as a replacement instead of a problem. At its heart, the whole film is really about the passing of batons, and the inexorable move from the past to the future. Fitting, then, that The Guardian humbly accepts every possible hoary cliché from its predecessors in the military-movie genre, and treats them all with the deepest, grimmest respect.
To its credit, The Guardian is in no hurry to cut straight to its stunningly choreographed action scenes, or to cut corners in character development. It takes its time in sending Costner off on Alaskan rescue missions and putting him through grief with his wife. (Someday, someone will make a movie where one of the trials of a heroic, dedicated man isn't a faithless, selfish woman. This isn't that movie.) Then a disaster temporarily sidelines him, and he heads south to recuperate while serving as a hard-ass rescue-swimmer trainer. That opens the door for a big, familiar pastiche of Top Gun, An Officer And A Gentleman, and every other military training movie ever made.
The Guardian tries tremendously hard to win audiences over with manly derring-do, exciting action, and impossible-obstacles-overcome uplift. And it's undeniably compelling for minutes at a time; Costner and Kutcher are perfect for their roles, which require little more than burning, banked determination and a firm jawline, and director Andrew Davis (Holes) does the best he can to enforce strong, stately pacing over an overlong story. But every time The Guardian threatens to be a great drama, one of those groaning clichés surfaces. Dreamy voiceover narration! Training montages set to rock music! A tough maverick who learns how to be part of a team! Inspiring "you are the elite" speeches! Stick-in-the-mud trainers who question Costner's teaching methods! Violent awakenings from flashback nightmares! A humanizing relationship with an emotionally guarded but beautiful civilian! An inter-service bar fight! The list, much like the movie, goes on and on and on.