1993's In the Line of Fire starred Clint Eastwood as an aging U.S. Secret Service agent who must thwart the assassination of the President. That same year also saw Harrison Ford in the cinematic adaptation of The Fugitive, where an innocent man tries to prove his innocence while pursued by a methodical lawman. Smoosh the two together and you have this cookie cutter conspiracy thriller. While there's nothing wrong with revisiting familiar material, The Sentinel struggles with execution.
Michael Douglas (absent from the screen since 2003's The In-Laws) is Pete Garrison, a respected Secret Service agent who stepped between John Hinckley Jr.'s gunfire and President Regan twenty-five years ago. Today he heads the team that protects First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger). After a colleague (director Clark Johnson) is murdered before he can privately share important information with Garrison, the investigative division of the Secret Service steps in, led by top agent David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland of television's 24). Garrison then receives a tip from his favorite snitch: the Secret Service has a mole masterminding a plan to assassinate President Ballentine (David Rasche from television's Sledge Hammer).
Complicating matters further are the relationships between these characters. Breckinridge was once Garrison's friend and protégé, but the two recently had a falling out after Breckinridge suspected Garrison was having an affair with his wife. He's mistaken—Garrison is instead sleeping with the First Lady whenever the two can discreetly slip away to the Presidential retreat without suspicion.
It's this shameful secret that causes Garrison to fail the office polygraph test and thus become the chief suspect in the assassination plot he's trying to foil. Rather than talk it over in custody, he goes on the run and relies on his years of experience as a Secret Service agent to uncover the mole himself while also evading Breckenridge and his assistant Jill Marin (Eva Longoria of television's Desperate Housewives), who studied under Garrison at the Academy.
Yes, The Sentinel is as soapy as it sounds, derailing the suspense, mystery, and action needed to drive a film like this. As much as people may want to see Douglas and Sutherland interact and outwit each other, the film confuses acting together with yelling at each other. See, Breckinridge is by-the-books procedural and bases all his decisions on evidence, while Garrison follows his instincts to make snap decisions. Oh, and then they've got that whole affair thing between them too.
The actors are simply going through the motions here. Garrison is a variation on the same character Douglas has been playing for the last fifteen years—the intense hero struggling to overcome his sins. Though Sutherland is "playing by the rules" this time, he's still in full Jack Bauer mode, following the evidence but still making some hasty leaps in logic; you'd think the actor would want to try something different in his time off from 24. Meanwhile, Longoria's character merely exists as clichéd eye candy—the plucky feminine agent on her first field assignment after graduating second in her class at the Academy.
But the actors aren't really to blame for relying on what's worked before. The Sentinel suffers from a flimsy and predictable story shallower than the average made-for-television production. At the very least, the filmmakers and studio would have been wiser to hide the point that Garrison becomes a suspect in the investigation, especially since it doesn't happen until midway through the movie (to the disappointment of those hoping for lots of cat and mouse between the two leads). It would have been refreshing to shed some doubt on Garrison's innocence and hint at potential plot twists. Instead, there's never a question of Garrison's innocence, the film's only surprise being the identity of the mole, which can easily be guessed early into the film.
The dialogue is shallow too, denying heart from relationships that require depth and poignancy. While on the run with everything falling apart, Garrison tells the First Lady, "Don't worry, we're going to get out of this." She asks how. "I haven't figured that out yet," he responds with dead seriousness. When confronted about the affair involving the country's most visible couple, Garrison's explanation is similarly oversimplified—"Because I love her." Too bad the forbidden love isn't played with any believable sense of chemistry or passion. For that matter, the film goes no further to explain why the First Lady is unhappy in her marriage, and at times, it actually feels as if we're supposed to root for the adultery, because after all, they're the heroes.
Also frustrating is the editing, which jumps from scene to scene with the attention deficit of a channel surfer. For the first half, director Johnson pointlessly uses annoying montages of death threat letters and phone calls to transition between scenes. And at one point, the movie needlessly jumps between scenes of Garrison assisting the First Lady while Breckinridge explains crime scene procedure to the local police. The effect is exactly like a dissatisfied television viewer unable to decide which television program is more boring.
And while The Sentinel is rarely dull with the pacing, it lacks genuine thrills. It takes 45 minutes for the first true action scene to arrive, and while the climactic shootout is pretty well staged, it's the sort of sequence one expects in the middle of a good movie, not the end. If only the film staged more thoughtful chase sequences between Garrison and Breckinridge, or better yet, established an identifiable villain that's truly menacing.
One thing the movie does get right is the subject matter. The Sentinel is based on the 2003 novel of the same name written by Gerald Petievich, a former Secret Service agent who also wrote the books that inspired To Live and Die in L.A. and Boiling Point. Thus the film is overflowing with tricks of the trade that demonstrate codenames, surveillance, technology, and tactics that agents use to protect government leaders and themselves. Much of it is fascinating in a Tom Clancy kind of way, but the story simply doesn't live up to it.
Aside from In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive, The Sentinel also reminded me of 2006's Firewall with Harrison Ford. Both have 60-something superstar actors who haven't been in a hit movie for some time. Both are predictable in execution and reminiscent of better films previously made by their stars. And both are still watchable in spite of their flaws. But are you looking to spend $10 opening weekend or are you looking to pass the time on a trans-continental flight? If it weren't for the clout of its two leading men, The Sentinel would be nothing more than a made-for-cable or direct-to-DVD feature.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Garrison and Breckinridge represent two different form of response—instinct vs. procedure. How are both important in a job such as the Secret Service? Does one outweigh the other? What does Scripture say about each (browse through Proverbs for some examples)?
- Does The Sentinel portray Garrison's relationship with the First Lady as honorable? Do emotions justify his actions? Why or why not? What message(s) do you believe the movie communicates concerning adultery? How does this compare with a Biblical stance concerning adultery? Does the film show cracks in the relationship between the President and First Lady?
- The press materials describe The Sentinel as a redemption story for Garrison's character. Do you agree or disagree with that assessment? What qualities or components are needed for a true redemption tale? What could have been added to this story to make it more redemptive?
- Garrison and Breckinridge shared a long history of friendship together, but let a misunderstanding get in the way. Why did they let it perpetuate for so long? How is it resolved in the movie? What does this suggest about honesty and trust in a relationship?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Sentinel is rated PG-13 for some intense action violence amounting to a handful of characters that are shot. Most discouraging is the film's cavalier attitude towards adultery. The scene of sensuality involves the hero and the First Lady, though the story moves on before any nudity. There's also some bad language, including taking the Lord's name in vain.
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Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/27/06
The secret about this Secret Service thriller is out: The Sentinel is not so thrilling. Still, Michael Douglas shouldn't be feeling too badly about it. At least he was smart enough to stay far, far away from Basic Instinct 2.
In The Sentinel, Douglas plays veteran Secret Service agent Pete Garrison, who is disgusted with one of the other agents—David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland)—because he suspects that Breckinridge had an affair with his ex-wife.
Meanwhile, Garrison is engaging in an affair himself—with the First Lady (Kim Basinger).
Are you filled with the American spirit yet? Wait, there's more. Things get complicated when Garrison is assigned to investigate a plot to assassinate the President (David Rasche), and make room for a sexy new agent on the force (Eva Longoria of TV's Desperate Housewives).
Director Clark Johnson, who also directed the underwhelming S.W.A.T., and writer George Nolfi, who scripted Oceans 12, have apparently fallen short of the standard set by other secret-agent thrillers like Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire and Andrew Davis' The Fugitive. In fact, even Kiefer Sutherland's hit television series 24 earns higher marks than this.
But David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "The Sentinel strikes a nice balance between being a smart mystery and a straight action film, with some dexterously executed chase sequences. Visually gritty and kinetic, the movie is garnished with pulses of surveillance-style images and sound-bites to create a high-tech atmosphere of paranoia, reminiscent of conspiracy classics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor."
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) began thinking that it was a "nicely crafted little thriller. … But … while The Sentinel doesn't overdo the overt content (sex and gore) the way most of its 21st century peers do, it still puts audiences in the line of fire, leaving them to fend for themselves when it comes to ethics and morals."
Mainstream critics are highlighting the holes in The Sentinel's preposterous plot.
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