There’s nothing in The Sentinel that you haven’t seen before: a misjudged hero on the run, a White House assassination plot, Michael Douglas playing the same part he has been for twenty years….the list goes on. Yet, oddly enough, this familiarity doesn’t detract this unremarkable picture from being entertaining. The Sentinel follows an aging secret service agent named Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) as he tries to uncover an assassination plot on the president (David Rasche). Along the way, he butts heads with an old colleague, David Breckenridge (Kiefer Sutherland), who has just taken on an old student of Pete’s named Jill Marin (Eva Longoria) as his partner. The film is directed by Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T.) from a script by Ocean’s Twelve scribe George Nolfi, which is adapted from Gerald Petievich’s novel.
Clark is a very serviceable director and he keeps the action moving briskly. This is crucial for a film like this, because it doesn’t allow you much time to stop and think about the occasional credibility gaps in the screenplay—which there are. The greatest strength and greatest drawback of Nolfi’s script is the way he dodges the logistical issues presented by the plot. We never find out who exactly it is that is out to get the president, nor do we ever see how they subvert security with such ease. Depending upon your perspective, that can be frustrating because it feels like a bit of a cheat. On the other hand, its broad strokes approach keeps the film light on its feet, compared to last month’s draggy “thriller,” Inside Man.
The characters mainly serve to keep the plot moving and, following the John Grisham model, relationships take a backseat to intrigue. Longoria, in her first significant film role is solid, even though she has nothing to do. There’s potential in her mentor-student relationship with Douglas’s character that is never explored. There’s also some odd, sexist banter about her looks and wardrobe that occurs early in the film—as if the filmmakers feel the need to state the obvious: that Longoria is beautiful. It’s all the more odd because she’s not costumed very provocatively (she wears far less every week on Desperate Housewives). This kind of chauvinism is a sort of throwback to the eighties, where the men’s characters told the story and the women were there for window dressing.
The same goes for Kim Basinger as the First Lady. Despite her Oscar, Basinger is not a great actress, but she’s not bad here—yet despite being involved in a key subplot, her main function is to model well-tailored business suits. Sutherland, doing his Jack Bauer thing, is great and his acting helps anchor the film. His work here highlights his remarkable transformation from creepy character actor to leading man. Finally, we have Douglas, whose best acting trait is a kind of well-worn affability. Douglas has done this role before (often) and his is the performance that threatens to reveal the formulaic undertones of the story. His performance isn’t lacking in vitality, but originality, and like Denzel Washington in Inside Man, his character is a little too self-assured for his own good.
Despite my complaints about the limits of The Sentinel, it provides solid B-movie entertainment. If it never quite soars to the heights of government thrillers like In the Line of Fire or No Way Out, it does possess some of the qualities that made those films pulse with intensity. In some of its more successful sequences, it creates a real sense of danger (though the jerky hand-held camerawork is a touch overused). The film also reminds the viewer of the potential drama and intrigue inherent in the White House. The political thriller as a genre has been somewhat dormant in recent years, so The Sentinel, despite telling an oft-told tale, is something of a breath of fresh air.
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