Kevin Costner stars as Ben Randall in "The Guardian." In his ripened middle age of 51, Costner has brought his sturdy, minimalist masculinity to a plateau of subtlety. You would not (unless nuts) wish to see him do Hamlet, but there aren't many British thespians you'd care to see playing Ben Randall.Randall is the most esteemed rescue man at the Coast Guard station in Kodiak, Alaska, where the water runs cold and winter is long. His commanding officer (Clancy Brown) has let Ben, well past 40, continue rescuing ship crews and kayakers because he is so capable. And he can't imagine not doing it.
His wife (Sela Ward, fine in a skimpy role) is leaving, sick of his risk-taking and, probably, Kodiak. After a disaster leaves him the only survivor, Ben is packed off to the Guard's training school in the Lower 48 to teach young recruits. His terse, pushing, but not cruel, tactics weed out some of the new men (and women) but, of course, they know he is the Real Thing.
Ashton Kutcher has real presence as Jake, the most driven and cocky trainee. Not just buff but smart, he tangles with Costner involvingly, and the script stays fairly bright despite some rote strokes.
A bar fight with Navy tars is trimly done, Melissa Sagemiller is highly engaging as the schoolteacher Jake fancies, the coastal guardians are individuals more than uniforms, and the rescues are exciting. There is something basically moving about an elite service with the motto "So Others May Live."
Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive," "Under Siege") has the gristle for directing this material. He rightly burrows into Costner. The actor has evolved past youthful patches of dullness to deliver a run of smart, efficient, gracefully inflected performances in "Thirteen Days," "Open Range," "Rumor Has It," "The Upside of Anger," and now this.
Though the climax swells toward macho myth, "The Guardian" is braced by Costner's crisply weathered authority. He was born to deliver lines like, "First lesson in physics, people: muscle does not float." And he floats the movie.
A Buena Vista release. Director: Andrew Davis. Writer: Ron L. Brinkerhoff. Cast: Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher, Melissa Sagemiller, Sela Ward, Clancy Brown. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3 stars.