A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
THE SENTINEL j

2006, PG-13, 105 mins.

Pete Garrison: Michael Douglas / David Breckinridge: Kiefer Sutherland / Sarah Ballentine: Kim Basinger / Jill Marin: Eva Longoria / President Ballentine: David Rasche / Agent Hassas: Raoul Bhaneja / Tom Dipaola: Simon Reynolds / Hugo Ortega: Danny A. Gonzales

Directed by Clark Johnson /  Written by George Nolfi /  Based on the novel by Gerald Petievich

As far as thrillers go, I think that even modestly successful ones need to have some harmonious combustion of silly, over-the-top theatrics with a nail-biting, taut, and tense story.  THE SENTINEL is simply not one of these types of thrillers. 

Sure, I have had to endure long endurance tests of incredulous logic in many similar films before that I have actually enjoyed, but those moments were not enough to make me cower away sheepishly from my appreciation of them.  This year’s early entry, the Harrison Ford vehicle FIREWALL, had scenes where I doubted the collective common sense of all of the makers behind the camera (I am still not sure if dog collars and laptop assisted GPS control can work so well in unison).  Nevertheless, that film was indicative of an old school approach to the genre that never lost sight of its ambitions.  It took the standard conventions of a kidnapping suspense and utilized them - for the most part - fairly adequately.  FIREWALL was moderately tense and rousing for what it was.

THE SENTINEL – even with its incredible flights of logical fancy – is not even reasonably thrilling to be considered rousing.  In FIREWALL, you felt for Ford’s character and wanted root for him to kick some collective kidnapper ass.  By direct comparison, THE SENTINEL is a categorically soulless and mediocre thriller in the sense that there is no one persona that you really want to cheer on.  In this film’s case, you have either a Secret Service agent that is an adulterer –the biggest kind of scum there is – or a trigger happy, vendetta-driven Secret Service investigator.  Hmmmm…where is the straight-arrow Jack Ryan when you need him?

I subscribe to the notion that thrillers are only as good as their respective antagonists and protagonists, no matter what form they take on.  In THE SENTINEL there is really no semblance of standard good guys or bad guys; there are shades of grey.  Okay, that in itself – it might be argued – could make for a really stimulating and involving work.  Yet, THE SENTINEL is not riveting even in small dosages, it gives us no one that we really care to invest our emotional energies with, and it has a story so chaotic, contrived, and oftentimes ridiculous that you feel like you want to slap some good sense into the characters.  How can one invest in a film like this when the thrill-quotient is as minimal as its character development and interaction?  Not only that, but we are forced to see good actors utter preposterous lines line, “He was my best friend for nearly ten years, but when he cheated on my wife that changed everything.”  Oy-veh. 

Think of this film as an intellectually retarded FUGITIVE crossed inexplicably with IN THE LINE OF FIRE that has personas you really never give a damn about.  Honestly, why should I care about anyone in this film, let alone the main “protagonist” that Michael Douglas plays?  Now, I have always been a huge Douglas-apologist even when the actor has done less-than-respectable work.  However, I have never felt like rooting for him less as I did while enduring THE SENTINEL. 

His role of elder Secret Service agent Pete Garrison is supposed to garner some respect...I am assuming.  In a flashback at the beginning of the film he is shown taking a bullet during the assassination attempt of Ronal Reagan 25 years ago.  Yup, he still is fit and strong enough to continue his job well into the 21st Century, but my reverence for him sort of stops there.  He is a fiercely patriotic man who is willing to die to save the life of the President, yet he is willing to let his Commander and Chief die a wretched emotional death.  You see, Garrison has eyes for his hot First Lady, Sarah (Kim Bassinger, still a babe well into her 50’s).  They are, alas, having an affair.  How does Garrison justify his moral stabbing in the back of the President?  “I love her,” he confides at one point in the film.  Well, cry me a freakin’ river.

This adulterous subplot left a sour taste in my mouth because the film expects us to empathize and cheer for a ethical and moral hypocrite.  I would be more than willing to honor a man that is willing to commit himself to the dangerous chore of protecting the most powerful man in the free world, but what’s this guy thinking?  I mean, he swears a supposed oath to keep this man alive at all costs yet he is willing to ruin his life to bang his gorgeous wife.  Huh?  What’s wrong with this picture?  There is one moment where one character finds out about his double-crossing, sexual  proclivities and also asks Garrison “what he was thinking.”  The film never allows him to opportunity to even weasel his way into a justified answer.  Geez...this guy's kind of a worm.

Okay, the love affair is not the only element of the film, but it is the anchor behind it.  As the film opens we see another agent brutally shot dead on his front porch.  By whom we are not sure.  Maybe the agent knew something about a proposed assassination attempt?  Possibly.  The veteran in Garrison certainly gives credence to this idea, especially after he has a meeting with a highly dubious character who happens to be a valuable informant.  The informant does have some highly useful Intel – there is a dastardly mole in the service that has become a traitor and – gasp – has become imbued in a conspiracy plot to viciously murder the President in cold blood.  Paging Oliver Stone…

How this informant got this information...the film never explains.  He seems more like a guy who could sell you a good fake Rolex than give you vital secretive information that a national intelligence agency could not have discovered itself.  Anyhoo’, when word of this breaks out back at the office every one has to take a lie detector test.  Garrison, of course, is highly unwilling to take it for fear of leaking out his sexual fling with Sarah, which could spell utter doom for the President (at least that is what Garrison and Sarah feel).  Yet…c’mon…wouldn’t the fact that the Prez was cheated on entitle him to some serious sympathy votes?  Wouldn't at least some voters feel sorry for the guy?

Needless to say, Garrison fails his test miserably, especially when he is asked if he has done "anything to endanger the President,” which I guess could be equated to, “Did you even screw the First Lady?”  He soon becomes a prime suspect and within no time he comes toe-to-toe with his “former best friend” (oh, brother) David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland, playing his role like his similar part on TV’s 24, but on serious auto-pilot).  To make matters even worse for Garrison, Breckinridge hates his “former friend” because – yikes – he may have slept with his ex-wife as well!  Garrison has made more of a career having sex with married woman than he has protecting and serving.   Along with Breckinridge is his rookie partner Jill, played by Eva Longoria as the absolutely least plausible Secret Service person in screen history.

Here is where the film goes completely cuckoo.  It does not immediately appear that Garrison is guilty in anything other than boinking the President’s main squeeze.  So, when he gets cornered at his apartment and is asked to surrender peacefully, he instead breaks himself free and goes on the run.  I have no idea what is more stupefying, the fact that a 60-year-old-plus agent is able to beat the tar off of three larger, younger, and tougher agents to get away or the fact that he decides to get away in the first place.  Consider this:  you know you are not guilty even when an insurmountable amount of people think you are, but why…for the love of God…run?  Why not come clean that – dammit – you were having an affair with the President’s wife and that this is the reason why you failed the lie detector test?  Also, why would you run away – despite your innocence – and think that you can successful flee from the most powerful and pervasive intelligence community on the planet?  Beat’s me.

Oh…I know why…because the good guy in Garrison wants to get loose and stay one step ahead of other agents on his trail so that he can single-handedly stop the vast plot to kill the President.  Even worse, Garrison needs to save the President by a certain time as well!  It seems that he rather easily finds out that he will be targeted at a summit in Toronto where he could be killed easily.  I still am trying to figure out how Douglas is able to commandeer a Black Berry and hook it up simply to other electronic devices to get the information he needs to help save the President.  Another thing that I am trying to figure out is why…oh why…would the Secret Service let the President travel if there was a supposed plot to assassinate him?  If the real service is as stupid as the one in THE SENTINEL, then I seriously fear for Dubya’s safety.  Then again, maybe the President is tough enough to cover his own skin.  He is, after all,  played by Sledge Hammer himself, David Rasche.

Not one single minute of THE SENTINEL is compelling or intense.  If one follows the Law of Economy of Characters, then it is easy to see the real mole from a mile away.  Also, there is never any real pressure to worry about Douglas, as he seems like an invincible superman even as he approaches Social Security age.  He appears to be able to run for miles, outwit the service as a whole, and even takes a bullet round in the vest and gets up almost instantly.  Yes, Harrison Ford in FIREWALL was tough in his 60’s in that film, but at least he played his role with a level of physical and emotional vulnerability.  When the bad guys play mental mind games with him, he broke down.  When he was punched or kicked, he bled.  Douglas here never seems to break a sweat throughout the film.  He is a fine actor, to be sure, but he really phones in his performance in THE SENTINEL.

Kiefer Sutherland – another actor I have admired – is also a distraction in this film.  He’s essentially riffing on his highly coveted role of Jack Baur to great effect here.  He seems like he is dangerously close to utter typecasting.  His Baur-like role as Breckinridge is too much like is part on 24 and is played down with a genuine lack of fiery intensity (he too seems to be phoning in his performance; he can do these parts now effortlessly in his sleep).  And then there is Eva Longoria who emerges as less an integral figure in the plot and more as fetching window dressing. 

THE SENTINEL is one of those thrillers that does a spectacular job of balancing disbelief with triteness.  It is a lifeless film entry in this genre with a narrative drive that lacks forward momentum (the film’s pacing is dull and languid), with characters that you have to force yourself at gun point to cheer for, and it goes from silly to preposterous far too quickly.  The film is ultimately what even good time-wasting-films are not – it is remarkably boring and fails to get our involvement.  This is an inefficient, paint-by-numbers, and painfully routine whodunit, a MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE for laziest of people.  THE SENTINEL is a would-be pulse-pounding tale that does not even assure itself of the low merit of easily disposable popcorn entertainment.  As a heated and passionate exercise in political paranoia, assassination intrigue, and diabolical double crosses and twists, this film sure unravels as a stunning and lethargic second-rate, generic suspense film.  Instead of shocking us into near-heart failure, it subdues us into sheer weariness. 

Plus, why root for an adulterer?  Honestly?

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