MOVIE REVIEW- Top fin: Dude, where's my boat?

It's hard to believe there's an elite force left that hasn't been celebrated in a movie. Perhaps the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers are the last, and they get their dramatic due in The Guardian.

Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, Under Siege) deserves credit for keeping this overlong film moving without getting dull, even though Ron L. Brinkerhoff's screenplay is far from perfect, and the action sequences all look pretty much alike.

Senior Chief Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) has been the team's top fin– at least in the Kodiak, Alaska branch– forever, but he's starting to feel the "senior" part of his title. His boss, Capt. Hadley (Clancy Brown) has let him remain active well past the age (40) when swimmers are usually "promoted" to desk jobs.

Then Ben loses his wife, Helen (Sela Ward), and best friend, Carl Billings (Omari Hardwick), in the same day, one to divorce ("It's time for me to rescue myself") and one in a failed mission that wipes out his team. Over Ben's protestations Capt. Hadley ships him off to Louisiana to teach young swimmers at Barksdale Air Force Base.

Once he's resigned to teaching, Ben decides to do it his way, to try "to narrow between training and what really happens out there." The first day he makes the class tread water for an hour, with a one-way ticket out for anyone who can't cut it. This provides a payoff for an earlier line, "It seems like it's always the big ones that crack," when the barracks bully washes out because "Muscle doesn't float."

Going to the head of the class is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a former high school swimming champion who announces his intention of breaking all of Ben's records. The script goes beyond the demands of formula in drawing parallels between the mentor and his mentee. At times their relationship recalls Louis Gossett Jr. and Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Like that film, the younger man has to find romance with a local girl, and the lucky winner is schoolteacher Emily Thomas (Melissa Sagemiller). They promise to keep it casual, but you know how that goes. Is she doomed to repeat Helen Randall's life?

The only other trainee to get more than passing attention is Charlie Hodge (Brian Geraghty), who's taking the course for the third time but never passes because he's the chicken of the sea. Jake will be able to use his own mentoring skills on Charlie.

Ben gets mentored on aging by Maggie (Bonnie Bramlett), who owns the local bar, sings with the band and is generally one of those lovable, capital-C Characters.

When the survivors of Class 5506 graduate, Ben returns to duty in Kodiak and Jake is sent there too, setting up Act Three.

In addition to training exercises, there are several rescue sequences, including two back-to-back that open the film. Most of them look very similar– the same kind of fishing boat caught in rough waters at night. Don't these local fishermen know better than to go out at night when the sea is choppy?

These action scenes are appropriately chaotic. We're able to follow the actions of the rescuers, but there's no time for some of the subtleties about ethical decisions discussed in class and at other, calmer times. "The most important person to keep alive is yourself," Ben teaches; but does he believe it? Does Jake?

Costner seems comfortable with letting himself age, as long as he can show occasionally that he's still got it, and Kutcher acquits himself well enough. He's no Nicholson, or even Costner, yet, but he acts better than Josh Hartnett, and has more muscle too– but he can still float.

The Guardian stays afloat too, despite all the things that threaten to weigh it down.