Sunday, September 3, 2006

The Sentinel

Director: Clark Johnson
Starring: Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Eva Longoria, Kim Basinger
Running Time: 108 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Recently a foreign film was made depicting the fictional assassination of President Bush. It hasn't found a distributor and will likely never see the light of day in the United States. Why? Apparently, unbeknownst to me and probably a lot of other people, there's some kind of unwritten rule that you can't assassinate the President in a movie, much less the actual sitting one. The Sentinel doesn't do that, but depicts a believable scenario in which it could actually happen. It also gives us more of an inside look into how the Secret Service works than I thought was legally possible. If everything they showed us about how that organization works was completely ficticious (and for our President's sake I hope it was) they sure did a good job convincing me it wasn't. This could have easily been a mediocre thriller but it's bolstered by a smart script that presents a believable scenario and interesting performances from Michael Douglas and Keifer Sutherland.

Weathered Secret Service agent Pete Garrison (Douglas) is considered a hero in the organization for taking a bullet in the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. Now he finds himself the primary suspect in an attempt to assassinate the current President. The movie opens with his longtime colleague being killed because for uncovering that there was a mole in the Service plotting to kill the President. Called in to investigate the case is Breckinridge (Sutherland) and his new partner Jill (Longoria), who's as green as grass having only been an agent for all of two days. He says he wants her since she hasn't been "tainted" yet by years in the field.

Everyone in the Service is forced to take a polygraph test and only Garrison fails it. When the evidence starts to pile up that he's the mole (even though he's clearly being framed) Breckinridge becomes obsessed with bringing him down, although we suspect it has more to do with the fact he thinks Garrison, his former best friend, slept with his wife. It's true he's sleeping with somebody, except it's the First Lady, Sarah (Basinger). Before long, Garrison is in a hopeless situation and on the run to prove his innocence, determined to thwart the assassination attempt and clear his name.

What's interesting about this movie is how it reverses your expectations. You expect Sutherland to play a variation on his Jack Bauer from 24, but instead that role goes to Douglas while Sutherland is actually playing Breckenridge as the kind of agent Bauer would hate and rebel against. In the beginning of the film he gives a speech about how following your gut instinct is wrong because it forces you to just look at the evidence confirming that gut instinct. Then, ironically, he all he does is follow his gut instinct and personal feelings, which of course are completely wrong.

Eva Longoria's character may seem useless and just an excuse to bring in the young male audience (which was likely a huge factor), but she actually does serve a purpose in the story. Breckinridge needs fresh eyes on the case to keep him honest and that's what she does. It's not a demanding role, but she gets the job done. No one plays characters who fall from grace or experience some kind of reversal of fortune better than Michael Douglas (see The Game) and it's great to see him in this kind of role again. He's at his best here as a veteran who must now use his years of Secret Service knowledge to outsmart that very same organization he served heroically for years. I liked how he may be older, but used his mind and experience to escape life threatening predicaments.

I also felt The President (David Rasche from the great 80's t.v. series Sledge Hammer) and First Lady were actually excellent in their roles, which goes a long way in adding credibility to the story. If we can't believe the President, we can't believe an assassination attempt on his life. In too many movies the Presidency is treated as a joke, but here the actors infuse the roles with dignity and actually look and act how you'd expect the First Couple to in real life.

The movie suffers having nameless K.G.B. thugs as villains instead of a charismatic loner (like John Malkovich in In The Line of Fire) but in a way that made the events seem a little more realistic, so I understand the decision. While it's fairly obvious early who the mole is, what happens to him in the end, and the turn the plot takes, actually isn't. In fact, the final act has some great action scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. I also liked how the film didn't insult our intelligence by pretending Garrison would be promoted for breaking virtually every procedural rule in the Secret Service and endangering the life of the President by sleeping with the First Lady.

There's an alternate ending on this disc and your opinion of it will largely be based on how much you care about the relationship between Garrison and Sarah and where it ends up. One ending tells you. The other doesn't. It really makes little difference. The real draw of this movie is the cat and mouse game that unfolds between Douglas and Sutherland. As far as political thrillers go, The Sentinel is an intelligent surprise.

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