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The Sentinel

Another Routine Political Conspiracy/Action Thriller

The Sentinel with Michael Douglas in the lead role and Keifer Sutherland playing backup is just another standard-issue, generic Hollywood action/thriller. Think of the film as a cross between Sutherland's ongoing hit TV show "24" and In the Line of Fire mixed with the now "classic" escaped man on the run remake, The Fugitive and circling back to where it all started, back to Alfred Hitchcock's "wrong man/double-chase" formula films (e.g., North by Northwest, Saboteur, The Man Who Knew Too Much), minus the wit and humor that made Hitchcock's films entertaining both then and now.

Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas), a career Secret Service agent who once took a bullet for President Reagan, now heads up the detail that protects the First Lady, Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger). On his way to work at the White House, Garrison runs into an old friend, Charlie Merriweather (Clark Johnson, who also directed The Sentinel). A suspicious Merriweather suggests they meet up after work, but before they can, an assassin strikes. The Secret Service sends one of its top agents, David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), to head up the investigation. Garrison and Breckinridge were once friends, but their friendship ended badly over a personal issue. To add a complication to the mix, Jill Marin (Eva Longoria), Garrison's latest protégé and a rookie agent, has been assigned to work under Breckinridge.

The investigation takes a turn toward the negative when a meeting between Garrison and a former informant, Xavier (Raynor Scheine), goes badly at a shopping mall. Xavier apparently has information tying an assassination attempt on the president, Ballentine (David Rasche), to a mole operating inside the Secret Service. Garrison, however, finds himself at the center of the investigation, with Breckinridge doggedly unearthing clues that inevitably point to Garrison as the mole. For his part, Garrison, has one or two indiscretions and/or secrets that make him look like he's hiding something (because he is). With his former friend following the evidence and ready to arrest him, Garrison has no choice but to flee, find Xavier, discover the identity of the mole, and stop the assassination attempt before it happens.

Based on Gerald Petievich's (To Live and Die in L.A., Boiling Point) novel of the same name, George Nolfi's (Timeline, Ocean's Twelve) screenplay cuts-and-pastes elements from recent political conspiracy/action thrillers, throws them into a screenwriting program for proper formatting, and spits out a generic storyline with few surprises (you can guess the mole's identity moments after he/she makes his/her first appearance onscreen) and characterizations so thin that calling them one-dimensional is an understatement. The characters in The Sentinel have sketchy, underwritten pasts. As for the characters' inner lives, The Sentinel isn't that kind of film. Really, they have none.

Directed by Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T.) with competent efficiency, there's little negative that can be said about The Sentinel. On the surface, the film is paced to emphasize and maximize tension, suspense, and action. Johnson capably directs the action set pieces, although he occasionally overindulgences in fast zooms, quick cuts, or shaky cams to up the testosterone quotient. Johnson also slips in Se7en-like inserts of handwritten notes and distorted dialogue that's meant to suggest how dangerous being president of the world's only superpower can be (and how dangerous it can be for the men and women sworn to protect him).

Performance wise, there aren't any standouts, but again, The Sentinel isn't the kind of film that calls for emotion depth or character "moments." Sutherland gives a performance that wouldn't have been out of place on an episode of "24", except Sutherland wears a suit and tie throughout the film. Breckinridge gets angry, draws his gun, fires his gun, but luckily no one gets tortured to extract super-secret information regarding the latest terrorist bomb or toxin about to go off in a major metropolitan city. On the plus side, Michael Douglas manages to give a convincing performance of a graying, slowing yet still physically fit, action hero. Thankfully, Johnson and Nolfi minimize Douglas' involvement in credibility-stretching fistfights. The remaining cast members, including Eva Longoria ("Desperate Housewives"), give rote, mostly unengaging performances, but that's really the fault of the by-the-numbers script, not the actors.

As for subtext, The Sentinel plays it exceedingly safe when it comes to social or political commentary. Sure, there are a handful of topical references to terrorism and shadowy Central Asian regimes in on the conspiracy (and let's not forget that staple of 80s action films, Central American drug cartels making an unwelcome return as villains here), but that's all surface and gloss (and not much else). After all, playing it safe is what "mainstream moviemaking" is all about.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars