If you believe the new thriller The Sentinel, being the president is pretty easy: You write a few speeches, ride around in a limousine all day and pose for photo ops with multi-culti kids. Meanwhile, you're blissfully unaware that terrorists are planning to take out Air Force One, anti-American protesters are dancing in the streets and your Secret Service guy is banging your First Lady.
No, this isn't a South Park satire, at least not intentionally. It's just the latest in a long line of dull action flicks aimed at the Metamucil-and-Geritol crowd, who at this point could probably could use a jolt or two in their high-fiber, low-intensity Hollywood product. The Sentinel stars career womanizer Michael Douglas as Pete Garrison, a no-nonsense, retirement-age Secret Service agent. He's still fit and trim (he does push-ups every day), but he never quite recovered from the time in 1981 when he let John Hinckley Jr. fire a round into Ronald Reagan (which is essentially the same problem Clint Eastwood's character had in the far superior In the Line of Fire).
If Pete's colleagues are wondering why he's still on the job after all these years, we get an answer when he goes on detail for the First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger), a clueless blonde sporting a Jackie O. flip and a Laura Bush frock. Whenever Pete and Sarah get the chance, they're pawing at each other like Viagra-fueled baby boomers, which makes Pete the target of shady, ethnically vague terrorists hell-bent on assassinating the president (David Rasche) for some never-specified reason. Just as they start trying to bribe Pete for information, the entire Secret Service crew comes under investigation for a "man on the inside." David Breckenridge (Kiefer Sutherland) is the agent assigned to shake down the organization in search of the mole. Breckenridge has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to his former buddy Pete, and he's determined to take him down with the minimal aid of his nubile trainee Jill (Eva Longoria, looking as lost as Bambi in the forest).
With all its high-tech hardware and confusing jargon, The Sentinel is preoccupied with the business of being a Secret Service agent. Director Clark Johnson gets the details right: There are dozens of scenes devoted to walkie-talkies, earpieces, hand signals, secret code words and flak jackets, and they're the most interesting stuff in the film. But what he fails to produce is any sort of believable character motivation. When Sutherland and Douglas bark at each other, it feels like there's nothing at stake; the foundation of the movie's plot is built on misunderstandings that could be cleared up with a word or two. A director like Michael Mann (Collateral) can finesse silly macho stuff like this into something meaningful, but it's clear Johnson can't.
Without any strong direction, the capable cast is left to chew scenery. Douglas, with his slicked-back gray hair and slowly encroaching hunchback, looks more like President Reagan than someone who once protected him. At one point, Basinger's character is described as being "completely unfazed" but "embalmed" is more like it. She has the presidential nod and wave down pat, but in the scenes where she's supposed to let down her guard, she seems like a cross between a Stepford wife and an inflatable doll. When she and Douglas "passionately" make out, it's more like watching two trout bump into each other as they attempt to swim upstream.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].