Directed by Andrew Davis, The Guardian is scaled as an epic, but the script (by first-time screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff) is like a 1940s pro-military quickie decked out with more padding than a Berber carpet, and unlike the current Flyboys, it takes no real pleasure in its cornball contrivances. It's leaden. That's something of a surprise coming from Davis, who remains best known for his propulsive big-screen version of The Fugitive, but who began his career with a series of smart and highly efficient B actioners that included two of Steven Seagal's best vehicles: Above the Law and Under Siege. (Admittedly, Davis' more recent résumé includes the aptly titled Collateral Damage.) Here, you can't fault Davis for his handling of action -- the film's perilous open-water rescue scenes are duly visceral -- but he can't disguise his fatigue with the material, and that's the sort of thing that can make a movie sink fast.
The Guardian is not without its token pleasures -- chiefly Kevin Costner, who's aged very nicely into playing over-the-hill former golden boys (see Tin Cup and The Upside of Anger) and who here gets a couple of affecting scenes with a brassy barroom blues singer (the legendary Bonnie Bramlett) that are all about coming to terms with the ebbing of youth. More surprising is Kutcher, whose shit-eating grin and I-fucked-Demi-Moore strut are well-suited to the part of a preening high school swim champ with a thing or two to learn about selfless heroism. (I warn you -- lest you risk choking on your popcorn -- that there are a couple of scenes in which Kutcher actually emotes, which, on the sliding scale that finds Josh Hartnett a suitable leading man, might qualify Kutcher as the Laurence Olivier of the MySpace generation.)
But the crises and characters are so hollow, they don't need to tread water to float. This is that rare movie that leaves you pining for the Jerry Bruckheimer touch.