The Sentinel reviewed.

The Sentinel reviewed.

The Sentinel reviewed.

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April 21 2006 10:45 AM

Plotters

The Sentinel is a White House thriller without a clue.

Eva Longoria in The Sentinel. 
Click image to expand.
Eva Longoria in The Sentinel 

The Sentinel (Fox) is one of those movies where no one talks. They hiss, they bark, they utter, they snap, they snarl through clenched teeth, but they do not talk. Anyone who opens their mouth all the way to speak clearly would be revealed as inefficient and unprofessional. And in a movie where a single glance at a photograph reveals that it "was taken with a night-vision lens from a boat with a gyroscopic stabilizer," no one wants to be unprofessional.

Representing the passing of the torch from one beady-eyed actor with an enormous forehead and a pointy chin (Michael Douglas) to another (Kiefer Sutherland), The Sentinel is an ode to tough men doing a tough job, in this case the Secret Service protecting the president. There are tough women, too, represented by Eva Longoria as rookie Secret Service agent Jill Marin, a character Longoria herself unironically describes as an "eager beaver" even though she doesn't do much but translate Spanish and answer the phone. Eagerly. But while Kiefer Sutherland is locked up in his office yelling at her to put on more clothes and cover her celebrity cleavage, Secret Service agent Michael Douglas is putting the geriatric grind on the movie's other eager beaver, first lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger). According to his back story, Douglas took a bullet for Reagan and that entitles him to avail himself of the first lady whenever he likes.

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There's also a mole within the White House. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Imagine my dismay when I realized that the mole was not a cute, burrowing mammal menacing the South Lawn but a dastardly foreign operative out to kill our president. While the Secret Service may have made short work out of a member of the talpidae family, actual humans cause them a lot of trouble. As The Sentinel demonstrates, the Secret Service finds itself bedeviled by A) Michael Douglas, a man in his early 60s armed with a BlackBerry; B) Martin Donovan, a veteran of Hal Hartley movies whom any viewer can peg as the probable mole from the first scene; and C) the actual terrorists orchestrating the plot, who turn out to be three unemployed German philosophers sporting fashion-forward eyewear and black T-shirts.

Their plot to kill the president is one of those overly complicated, inscrutable master plans that pop up frequently in airport thrillers and always seem to involve surface-to-air missiles, traitors, computer hacking, false passports, and blackmail. But then nothing is simple and straightforward in the world of The Sentinel. Kiefer mistakes Michael Douglas for the mole! Michael Douglas goes on the lam and uses common objects bought in a hardware store to make monkeys out of the president's bodyguards! Eva and Kiefer chase him! Michael Douglas gets away by sailing his dinghy across a small body of water, which, perhaps owing to a curse put on them by a witch, the Secret Service cannot cross.

The screenwriters seem to have meticulously researched the inner workings of the White House by watching DVDs of The West Wing, but, despite their hard work, casting sinks the film. With Longoria and Sutherland onboard it feels like an uneasy marriage of 24 and Desperate Housewives, and making Kim Basinger choose between the president, played by David Rasche, and Michael Douglas, who swaggers around like a virile cock o' the walk, really isn't much of a choice at all. Although Douglas hasn't done much since he was in Traffic (2000) and Wonder Boys (2000), he's still the biggest star on the set, and when he and Basinger rub up against one another, you get the feeling she's trying to absorb a little of his career karma.

Ultimately, director Clark Johnson has made a movie about trust. Whereas he thinks he's made a movie about the trust between the president and the brave men and women who risk their lives every day for his safety, that's not actually the case. This movie is about the trust Kiefer Sutherland has that the director won't make him look like a total dork as he runs through a shopping mall yelling, "I can't make a visual. I can't make a visual!" It's about the trust Michael Douglas has that at 62 he can be made to look like a viable action hero. More than that, dear reader, it's about the trust between you and me. There are thousands of us in over-air-conditioned screening rooms all over the country, throwing our bodies between you and bad movies. When I see a bullet coming, I'll take the hit so you don't have to. Don't thank me, ma'am. It's my job.

Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.