While unknown assassins target the US President, the top guy in a Secret Service team assigned to protect America’s leader is suspected of treason…
Isn’t it ever the wonder of Hollywood that even wannabe controversial blockbusters can have their plots summarised, so effortlessly, in less than 25 words?
Also interesting is the fact that we can frame a rhetorical but nonetheless critically stinging question that gets to the very heart of everything that’s wrong with mainstream US ‘action cinema’ today in just as few words.
Not to be confused with the 1990s’ TV show about a detective with ESP, or Michael Winner’s 1977 horror flick, of the same title, The Sentinel stars Michael Douglas as a veteran Secret Service agent. Oddly, though, Douglas was more convincing playing the US commander-in-chief ten years ago in Rob Reiner’s rom-com drama, The American President (1995). I wondered if the actor felt he’d been demoted from Oval Office ‘boss’ to merely playing his glorified bodyguard. Kiefer Sutherland turns in a greater action man performance as Jack Bauer in popular television show 24 than he manages here in The Sentinel. And, furthermore,
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Eva Longoria’s looks (which include a shapely bottom) are showcased to better effect in television’s mystery soap Desperate Housewives, while Kim Basinger has also seen more glamorous days, and better roles in meatier scripts certainly; but here, at least, she makes the most of a rare chance to play an adulterous First Lady, even though her scandal-free affair is just a subplot, which runs interference – conveniently advantageous to the actual villain of the piece – for the principal threat against White House security.
The scenario’s revelations about the President’s wife, and Secret Service agent Pete Garrison (Douglas), and the case of mistaken identity that allows the real villain to frame Garrison for treason, are dragged out with such agonisingly premeditated slowness that, to viewers familiar with the essential tropes of film noir, the process might well feel like 100 painful minutes of amateur dental surgery. The casting here of David Rache (still best known for his comedy role as the ‘heroic’ buffoon of cult TV cop show, Sledge Hammer) as trustworthy President Ballentine, fails miserably to capitalise on the actor’s finely honed skills at playing straight-faced farce. But, then again, there’s nothing particularly farcical (except in the sleazy US tabloid sense, of course), about the President’s marital situation in The Sentinel. Sadly, nothing is made of the satirical possibilities for scrutinising the tragically paranoid mindset of officials in Homeland Security, either. When the final tally is over, this is a film that takes itself too seriously. David Breckenridge (Sutherland), the federal agent placed in charge of hunting down suspected renegade Garrison, has one laughable scene where he plays crime-scene Sherlock, in the manner of weirdly omniscient super-detective Adrian Monk (winningly portrayed in the hit TV series, Monk, by Tony Shalhoub, with a maximum quota of OCD and phobic quirks), but it’s a moment that’s curiously out-of-place here, largely because Sutherland’s hard-nosed, yet oh-so sympathetic, character never acts especially smart, or closely attentive, in the rest of the film.
For a far superior movie covering similar ‘presidential protection’ themes, go and take a second look at Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire (1993), a worthwhile Clint Eastwood vehicle offering more fascinating moral intrigues and clearly far better written characters, than are featured anywhere in The Sentinel. It’s hardly a valid argument, in favour of this film’s downmarket appeal, to suggest that The Sentinel does not warrant any serious or hard criticism simply because it obviously harbours few aspirations to be even vaguely ‘thought-provoking’ (like Jonathan Demme’s commendable remake of The Manchurian Candidate), or astutely ‘controversial’ (in the manner of classic 1970s’ suspense thriller The Parallax View), and that The Sentinel is in fact simply a case of yet another second-rate Hollywood filmmaker settling for what he get away with in terms of straightforward action scenes and banal twists in a no-brainer plot.
Whatever can be said about The Sentinel’s cast, the most likely cause of this movie’s numerous failings is actor turned director Clark Johnson, previously guilty of doing such a thorough job of bungling 2003’s S.W.A.T. (a big screen version of the 1970s’ TV series). It’s quite possible that Johnson was drawn to this project after making 2004’s The Secret Service, a 60-minute pilot for a TV series that wasn’t developed any further. The central female character of that, Laura Kelly (played by Sarah Jane Callies, who went on to play the doctor in Prison Break), is found reflected in the personal and professional concerns of rookie agent Jill Marin (Longoria) in The Sentinel. It also seems likely that The Sentinel’s screenwriter George Nolfi (sci-fi clunker Timeline; caper sequel Ocean’s 12) had easy access to a source of better quality material than appears in this shallow film, because Nolfi’s script was adapted from a 2003 novel by Gerald Petievich, a real-life US Secret Service agent who retired 20 years ago to become a novelist, and also wrote the original book, To Live And Die In L.A. – so brilliantly filmed by William Friedkin, back in 1985. All this suggests The Sentinel could have been a truly engaging prospect if its makers had bothered to look beyond their studio product’s wholly unimaginative premise, and aimed a little bit higher, instead of thinking this movie’s batch of recycled clichés would suffice.
Once upon a time, new American directors were middle-class intellectual upstarts eager to exploit their familial or industry connections, or angry young lefties with media savvy breaking out of television hell. Nowadays, all we get is a conveyor-belt long queue of dependable Hollywood factory ‘nice guys’ with patience to spare but lacking creative audacity, or blandly inarticulate ‘company men’ blithely exploiting the gullibility of teenagers or easily-pleased family audiences. Since the promising US careers of action movie directors as varied as Kathryn Bigelow, John Woo, and Luc Besson were cruelly sabotaged or unfortunately sanitised by Hollywood’s ruthlessly systematic erosion of genuine creativity and experimentation, where now can fans of fast-mover films look for genre auteurs?
The DVD has optional Dolby digital 5.1 sound and English subtitles. Disc extras include the lamentably routine commentary track (fast becoming a contractual obligation for filmmakers, and too-frequently an occupational hazard for DVD reviewers!) by Clark Johnson and George Nolfi, deleted scenes, and a couple of regrettably typical behind-the-scenes featurettes.