The Sentinel is one of those movies that looks familiar and feels familiar, but also brings a lot of familiar enjoyment. Watching it isn’t like seeing something new and exciting; it’s like re-watching a good movie you’ve already seen. That may be a turnoff for some people. For me, the film chugged along with enough energy and breezy fun that I didn’t mind the utter déjà vu feeling of it.
This is yet another thriller about a protector (in this case a veteran Secret Service agent) who is framed for a crime and must outsmart his colleagues to prove his innocence. Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) has been an agent for a long time. He once even took a bullet for Ronald Reagan. When he’s not protecting the president, he’s secretly bedding the First Lady (Kim Basinger). Someone knows about this and sends blackmail photos to Garrison.
Around this same time, an old informant provides information about an assassination attempt being planned by a Russian drug cartel. Even more shocking, someone on the inside is allegedly in on the plot. All the agents are ordered to take a polygraph test, which Garrison promptly fails when they ask him if he’s violated his duty in the last few months. He looks even guiltier after suspiciously stumbling into a coffee shop that is being staked out by the feds. Kiefer Sutherland plays David Breckinridge, Garrison’s colleague and former best friend. Breckinridge still harbors resentment over the belief that Garrison had an affair with his wife. When his old buddy suddenly starts to look guilty, he jumps at the chance to make the arrest. Garrison escapes, though, and sets out to 1.) prove he’s not the spy within the organization; and 2.) prevent the assassination from taking place. One of the people he calls for help is his former protégée, Jill Marin (Eva Longoria), who now works for Breckinridge.
The elements of The Sentinel should remind you of other movies. This is not exactly the most groundbreaking of plots. Still, the whole “wrongly accused man trying to prove his innocence” idea has worked for a long time and will continue to do so far into the future. Hitchcock used this device to good effect, and it is classic because it allows for suspense and, often, some kind of moral examination. In this case, Garrison is guilty of violating the rules of being a Secret Service agent by sleeping with the First Lady. He can’t admit that during the lie detector test. But not admitting it causes him to appear suspicious and untrustworthy in relation to assassination plot. This is a sticky situation, to say the least, and it gives The Sentinel the pulse it needs to distinguish it from with other similar pictures.
Michael Douglas is probably the one major star in Hollywood who actually seeks out flawed characters to play. He doesn’t care if he is not always completely sympathetic on screen. Because of that, there is tension in the scenes between Garrison and Breckinridge (nicely played by Sutherland). We understand why they might not like each other, and their mutual animosity mixes with grudging professional respect to create a fascinating dynamic. Had the alleged affair not severed the relationship between them, Breckinridge would probably never think his friend capable of being a traitor.
My favorite part of the The Sentinel is the procedural stuff. We all know what Secret Service agents are, but how much do we know about their methodologies? I loved all the scenes showing how they use different tactics to protect the president. Some of it is basic, some of it is surprisingly complex. All of it is interesting. There’s a montage showing how fingerprints are collected and analyzed that is particularly riveting. The movie is based on a book by Gerald Petievich, who used to be a fed before turning to novels. The story certainly benefits from his experience.
Not everything works so well. The identity of the traitor was obvious to me early on; the revelation of this person’s involvement follows an age-old cliché for this type of movie. I also thought that a few loose ends were left untied. Even at the end, it wasn’t clear why the assassination plot had been organized. Maybe we’re just supposed to assume that someone somewhere always wants to kill the president.
In spite of these glitches, The Sentinel does offer a reasonable amount of entertainment. The plot – while familiar – is interesting, and the ensemble cast is uniformly likeable. I may not remember much about the film in, say, six months, but for the two hours I watched it, I was enjoying myself. Washington D.C. in general – and the Secret Service in particular – is so inherently fascinating that it’s hard to completely screw up this kind of thriller. The Sentinel gets more things right than wrong.
( out of four)
The Sentinel is rated PG-13 for some intense action violence and a scene of sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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