Thursday, April 20, 2006

On Fox’s “24,” Kiefer Sutherland plays a hard-nosed anti-terrorist agent who routinely saves the president’s life. The actor’s assignment in “The Sentinel?” Play a hard-nosed Secret Service agent selected to save the president’s life.

So much for stretching.

The biggest leap here is left to the audience. Will people want to see more of Michael Douglas, the film’s true star, than the red-hot Mr. Sutherland?

Mr. Douglas, who at 61 appears to have discovered the fountain of Zeta, plays a cagey Secret Service agent accused of being a mole out to kill the president (David Rasche of “Sledge Hammer!” fame).

Sounds like the nuts and bolts of a good thriller. But “The Sentinel” is only serviceable, never spectacular.

Director Clark Johnson trots out some nifty camera angles and stitches scenes together with fevered interstitials of presidential hate mail. Still, he cannot rally past the film’s lack of a hearty villain, or conjure up a worthwhile mystery when one doesn’t exist in the script. It’s all by-the-numbers execution, and no one ever comes close to painting outside the lines.

Mr. Douglas’ Pete Garrison is a loyal servant to both President Ballentine and the first lady, (Kim Basinger). Truth be told, Pete is quite a bit closer to the first lady than his job description permits. They’re having a torrid affair when security schedules allow.

Beyond that complication, Pete doesn’t see eye to eye with David Breckinridge (Mr. Sutherland), the man assigned to head up an investigation into the recent murder of a Secret Service agent. Their bad blood exists only to make their eventual cease-fire all the more rewarding.

Besides, Pete’s bigger concern is an impending lie detector test meant to root out the mole. How can he swear fidelity to the president when he can’t even respect the man’s marital vows?

“The Sentinel’s” opening moments peer behind the curtain of the Secret Service, a subsociety where every movement is orchestrated, no gesture goes for naught.

The setup portends a complicated thriller, one that hinges on deftness and deceit. Instead, we’re treated to a second-rate “Fugitive” takeoff, as David rallies his fellow agents to chase the fleeing Pete.

David doesn’t tell them to check every “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse,” but he does douse their enthusiasm by saying, “He is smarter and more experienced than all of you.”

He’s a better agent than a motivational speaker, apparently.

“Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria co-stars as David’s new partner, her pretty countenance only confirming the film’s television-sized melodrama.

“The Sentinel” could have showcased an aging star showing the new kid how to command the screen, but everyone here decides to play it by the book. Too bad that book reads like a dog-eared copy of TV Guide.


WHAT: “The Sentinel”

RATING: PG-13 (Action violence and some adult language)

CREDITS: Directed by Clark Johnson. Written by George Nolfi based on the book by Gerald Petievich.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes



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