The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, May 06, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Sentinel

Full review behind the jump.

The Sentinel

: Clark Johnson
: George Nolfi, based on the novel by Gerald Petievich
: Michael Douglas, Marcy Drogan, Arnon Milchan
: Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Eva Longoria, Martin Donovan, Ritchie Coster, Kim Basinger

It’s easy to chalk up the relative dearth of police procedurals in modern cinema to primetime television. After all, when you’ve got a factory churning out neatly-packaged hours of
Law & Order, C.S.I. and all their forensic spawn every night of the week, it’s hard to come up with a murder that’s going to get people out of their houses. Classic supply and demand.

A similar familiarity drags down
The Sentinel, which in an age of small-screen paranoid political intrigues like Alias and 24 just doesn’t pop. That’s not all about this movie which feels worn-out, but it might be the most difficult to overcome, even with the brisk direction of Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T.) and a pair of leads who certainly know the playing field.

Michael Douglas returns from a brief screen hiatus to star as Secret Service Agent Pete Garrison, an agency legend for taking a bullet meant for Ronald Reagan. But he probably won’t be putting his dalliance with the current First Lady (Kim Basinger) on his resume any time soon. So while we’re on the “familiarity” bandwagon, it bears pointing out that this is yet another movie where a woman’s sexual hunger for Michael Douglas has grave consequences.

You see, there’s a credible assassination threat against the President, with the added fear that someone inside the Service – famous for its unshakeable loyalty – is providing information about their boss’s movements to the assassins. So everyone on the protective detail is subjected to a polygraph, which puts Garrison in a fix because of that little matter about his employers he doesn’t want to divulge.

This triggers a fast-paced run-through of the thriller template wherein a massive security apparatus is directed at an innocent man; while only the innocent man, armed with just his guts and instincts, can discover the truth. Garrison’s Javert is David Breckinridge (“24” star Kiefer Sutherland), a former protégé with a dogged, exacting approach to investigation, and a seething grudge against his old mentor. See, Breckinridge is convinced the old man slept with his wife, and his conviction about it is compelling. Given the evidence that Garrison doesn’t exactly choose his bedmates wisely, it’s plausible, too, and yet the movie shoehorns in a preposterous confrontation between Garrison and the ex-wife whose only purpose is to buttress Garrison’s claims of innocence. This reeks of post-test-screening meddling, and the result has the two male leads come off like they’re working from different script drafts.

Sutherland knows how to play this sort of fiery bloodhound, David Breckinridge is basically Jack Bauer if Jack Bauer got to bathe and eat three squares a day. And Douglas knows he looks good in a suit and is still trim enough at 61 to run for his life, even if his ability to outpace or overpower highly-trained agents young enough to have been sired by him begins to fail the stink test.

There’s another lead whom I haven’t mentioned yet, a new field agent assigned to Breckinridge named Jill Marin (Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria). I can think of no better reason to mention her except that she’s played by someone whose star is on the rise, as the movie provides her no better reason to participate in the narrative.

Another player is worth mentioning for spinning screenwriting straw into screen gold, though, and that’s Ritchie Coster in the role of the chief conspirator behind the assassination. Character actors must strike a delicate balance between filling out their roles with color and noshing the scenery, and in his lonely few minutes Coster provides just-quirky-enough unpredictability mixed with menace that in a minor way echoes Alan Arkin’s breakthrough role back in Wait Until Dark.

Director Johnson is a longtime television veteran and because of this he shoots in a no-nonsense style. Between cinematographer Gabriel Baristain and production designer Andrew McAlpine his visual scheme is distinctly colorful without ever drawing too much attention to itself, and when the scene calls for run-and-gun action he provides both crisp pacing and a sense of the geography. I especially appreciate his technique of revealing the literal army that is the Service, and how much logistical machinery (and audio cross-chatter) is triggered just by the President getting into a car.

But Johnson is not filmmaker enough to elevate the material. The reversals of fortune, the “surprise” betrayals (yes, this is another Fischer-Price level game of “Spot the Traitor”), the bursts of action and emotion all feel grafted together, a Xerox collage of story ingredients which worked well somewhere else. The charge of inspiration and urgency, the sense that someone, somewhere is excited about this story and wants to tell it to us, is absent in The Sentinel. Everyone is satisfied to do their job and get paid, but that is not enough for the price of a ticket when we can get this stuff for free at home.


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