Friday, November 2, 2012

Cinema 2006: “The Sentinel” offers Secret Service intrigue

“The Sentinel” from 2006 uses images of the memorials and monuments in our nation’s capital to serve as backdrop for what is a tepid thriller.

Still, director Clark Johnson does hand us an all-access pass to the White House where we see the complicated world of modern intrigue and the safeguards required to protect our leaders. We get it all from the viewpoint of a Secret Service bristling with sleek surveillance and communications technology.

“The Sentinel” is grounded in reality, opening with news footage of the 1981 attempt on President Reagan's life. Agent Peter Garrison (Michael Douglas) took a bullet in that one, according to the movie. Garrison still works at the White House, but now, 25 years removed from his heroics, is detailed to protect a subsequent First Lady (Kim Basinger). These days, Garrison is less about taking a bullet for his boss than taking clandestine liberties with the President’s wife. In this, he gives new meaning to the term secret service.

When a plot to assassinate the president is uncovered, no-nonsense Agent Breckenridge (Kiefer Sutherland) is detailed to investigate a mole in the service. Breckenridge takes rookie Jill Marin (Eva Longoria) on as his assistant, not because she’s a hottie, but because she has yet to be corrupted. OK, but if you were in law enforcement, would you really want to go through a door with her? We are never shown that she has anything more substantial than the moxie to verbally insult an ogling coworker or the self-assurance to quote chapter and verse from the training manual.

As for Garrsion, we know he’s got game; he already took a bullet. Meanwhile, Douglas is perfectly cast. His star power and checkered on-screen persona keep us off-balance. As for Breckinridge, he is a straight arrow with an ax to grind. He believes, namely, that Garrison (this guy gets around) had an affair with his wife.

As the narrative advances, the most enjoyable scenes deal with the human aspects, often weaknesses, of these otherwise automaton-like secret service agents, who move like clockwork, respond to commands in their earpieces, and appear not unlike Hollywood cyborgs -- half flesh, half Kevlar.

Kim Basinger, 52 when she made this film, looks gaunt but brings to the role of First Lady an intelligent grace seldom seen in Hollywood or for that matter, prior to 2009, in Washington D.C . On the other hand, David Rasche delivers a nondescript performance as the President, although his character is depicted making decisions without a chief of staff or even a Veep anywhere to be seen.

Gabriel Berinstain’s cinematography shows fine attention to important detail, which helps tell the story in images. But the top-heavy plot cannot in the end sustain its own resolution, and after 90 minutes of supposed global intrigue the movie peters out in a pedestrian stairwell shootout among a few good guys and bad guys.

And speaking of bad guys, who are these evil doers? The main bad guys are easy to spot: one grimaces like he owned stock in GM, while the other sports black eyeglass frames in lieu of a black hat. They are Russian holdovers from the Cold War, who apparently mount an assassination plot just for old times’ sake.

And why does a Secret Service agent sell out his country in this post 9/11 world? It has something to do with the KGB, which keeps political relevance out of a good story. Still the plot holds our interest, with the help of a pounding musical score that subsequently no doubt found its way into the club scene.

It is a shame that the final shootout is staged without attempting to parallel the news footage used at the opening of the film. Instead, realism is jettisoned in favor of the unbelievable and the boring. The aftermath of Reagan’s assassination attempt revealed to the world that the Secret Service had a lot more firepower hidden beneath their trench coats than we suspected. But in the conclusion of “The Sentinel” the body-armored bad guys with assault rifles are defeated by Secret Service agents using nothing more than handguns and advanced tactics: “You aim low, I’ll aim high.”

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