Here's the problem facing the generic political thriller The Sentinel: Television is still free. As standards continue to rise and TV more readily turns out first-rate action serials, the bar has been raised for Hollywood cinema, and air-conditioning alone isn't its salvation. No one should know that better than former Homicide cast member Clark Johnson, a seasoned director of superior cop shows like The Shield, and star Kiefer Sutherland, whose heads up one of TV's tensest hours in 24. For the most part, the professionals on both sides of the camera know how to deliver the goods: As foursquare thrillers go, The Sentinel gets the job done, supplying a steady mix of action and intrigue without embarrassing itself too much. Yet any given episode of The Shield or 24 is more densely plotted, more surprising, and considerably deeper in characterization, having the added benefit of developing a story over many weeks. Without a little something extra, movies like The Sentinel, where everyone's working on autopilot, don't stand a chance.
Michael Douglas turns in his standard cop-on-the-edge performance as a veteran Secret Service agent who took a bullet for Reagan, but hasn't advanced much in the pecking order due to his unconventional methods. When the agency catches wind of an inside plot to assassinate the President, suspicion falls to Douglas after he fails a lie-detector test about following protocol. It turns out that the Douglas was indeed lying, but only to protect the fact that he's sleeping with the President's wife (Kim Basinger). And the plotters have the pictures to prove it. After escaping custody, Douglas goes dark in an attempt to exonerate himself and foil the assassination attempt, but he has to elude cagey fellow agent Kiefer Sutherland, his closest friend until Sutherland accused him of having an affair with Sutherland's wife. Desperate Housewives harlot Eva Longoria appears as Sutherland's rookie partner, contributing a nicely filled-out pantsuit to the investigation.
A more detailed look inside the Secret Service, which stays busy sorting out the genuine death threats from the whackos and pranksters, might have put some distance between The Sentinel and the precedent set by In The Line Of Fire. But the Service's day-to-day operations quickly take a back seat to rote thriller plotting, with Douglas' loose cannon playing a cat-and-mouse game with Sutherland's methodical detective and Longoria's rock-hard keister. At a time when Hollywood is finally addressing current events, The Sentinel doesn't even bother with politics; the President speaks in such vague generalities that it's hard to imagine anyone hating him, and the assassins have something to do with a cartel in faraway Gooberstan. When you're making a mediocre time-waster, at least one hook would be nice.