How does one explain Michael Douglas’ success playing leading men in thrillers? Cocksure and sleazy with a permanent smirk plastered across his surgically altered face, he makes an odd choice for a hero. Nonetheless, he works, and works very well. Douglas has a peculiar way of capturing our sympathy by transmitting that despite his flaws, a decent guy lurks underneath, or at least one who wants to do the right thing.
There may have been a better choice than Douglas for The Sentinel, but surely not by much. He plays Pete Garrison, a Secret Service agent who took a bullet for Ronald Reagan. Despite his heroism, he never progressed beyond ordinary field agent. This doesn’t seem to bother Garrison much, as it affords him plenty of time to bang Sarah (Kim Basinger), who happens to be the First Lady. Perfect Michael Douglas hero; cocksure, sleazy, smirky, decent guy nonetheless. To Douglas’ and the director’s credit, his age barely seems ridiculous, which can’t be said of Harrison Ford these days.
After running through some stock character introductions, including Kiefer Sutherland and Eva Longoria (a good running joke springs from her impossibly beautiful looks) as Secret Service investigators, the plot kicks into gear, with Garrison being framed for plotting to assassinate the President. He makes an easy target for a frame-up, as he needs to prove his innocence, but doesn’t want to confess to nailing the boss’ wife, either.
Director Clark Johnson, who also helmed SWAT (2003), knows how to put together an efficient thriller, and makes the material work, albeit with as little personality as possible. Plot details whiz by like bullets, with superfluous details such as explanations and character development landing on the cutting room floor. The lack of detail can be off-putting at times, but it makes perverse sense; everyone in the audience has already seen a hundred thrillers like this one, so why not acknowledge that and skip to the stuff we paid to see?
Consider Garrison’s escape from custody. Although a large force of agents pursues him, the film skips the usual obligatory scenes where he ducks in and out of alleys and outwits government goons. Instead, we see his pursuit of the bad guys, and even when chased, it is by the Sutherland character, who he does not so much outwit and defeat as he does convince. The terrorists themselves are given no motives whatsoever, other than they are foreigners who must dislike the President. At first I scoffed, but later realized the wisdom of the omission; to a Secret Service agent, the terrorist’s motives would be of no consequence, only that they want to kill the President matters.
Still, the lack of enthusiasm towards its own material also places an early cap on the film’s impact. What should be a thrilling finish instead comes across as fun but emotionally vacant, the film gliding off of the screen like a roller coaster that comes to a halt. Like that roller coaster, you get what you pay for. The Sentinel is fluffy, precise, refreshingly non-pretentious entertainment. It knows what it needs to do, does exactly that, and could care less about anything else.
I started this review by talking about the film’s star, and I’ll finish it by discussing the supporting actor. Kiefer Sutherland gained fame in the ’80s with roles in pop flicks such as The Lost Boys and Stand by Me. He never landed a truly great role, and his career faltered throughout the ’90s. Nearly five years ago, he scored the role of a lifetime as the hero on the phenomenal TV series 24. His performance on the show effortlessly ranges from intense, brutal, sympathetic, and even heartbreaking. If I were able to give one line of advice to the filmmakers, it would be this: Michael Douglas is cool, but he’s no Kiefer Sutherland.
3 out of 5