Michael Douglas is Secret Service agent Pete Garrison, part of the security detail for First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger), as well as her lover, and a veteran of presidential assassination attempts, having been shot when Reagan was.
Naturally, as the trailers for “The Sentinel” loudly proclaimed by Douglas bellowing “It’s going down!,” there is another assassination plot for Garrison to face, but not before a few incongruous twists that are swallowed up by many disconnected chases and with the way they’ve been written by screenwriter George Nolfi, there’s no importance attached to them, because what is there to write when you have no discernible writing skills?
But first, before getting into that, let’s look at the personal and political character of President Ballentine (David Rasche), just because the little bits given of him before the big climax that finds him cowering behind a Secret Service agent (as is supposed to happen anyway) are so spread out that it’s easy to forget he’s part of the film.
He prefers to have Sarah with him at functions that mean something, such as a bill signing at a local elementary school that only serves the purpose of showing us how the Secret Service springs into action on an outing like this. But their marriage seems like it’s more for show. In the motorcade on the way to school, he gently suggests that they hold hands once they’re in the public limelight and she agrees and that’s the entire conversation. Sarah isn’t Hillary Clinton, outspoken, or Rosalynn Carter, cold, or Nancy Reagan, ruthless and charming at the same time. She knows that as much as she prefers her affair with Garrison over her marriage, she can’t give up the power afforded her as First Lady. So she remains meek, a small character in the complications made by the big set pieces, much like Eva Longoria, who barely has time to play a rookie, a former student of Garrison’s at the Academy, who gets involved in the ensuing case.
Getting back to Ballentine, he intends to hold a Middle East summit at Camp David. Clearly he’s well into his second term and wants to try to form a legacy that will make him stand out, also evidenced by his call to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, at the G8 summit in Toronto. This is not a time for him to hear about an affair his wife is having, so he doesn’t. He doesn’t even know. Nolfi makes sure that Ballentine’s only concern is how it would look to the American people if they learned that a traitor in the Secret Service has paved the way to put him in potential danger.
David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), seemingly higher up in the Secret Service hierarchy since he his own office, is put in charge of investing the assassination plot to see who in the agency could want to assassinate the president as it’s indicated that that’s the case after an agent friend of Garrison’s is shot dead in front of his house and Secret Service agents bring out their guns with the safeties off.
It’s funny how this turns out. Sutherland’s Jack Bauer on “24” runs from government agents and now here he is as a government agent. He’s relentless and not especially friendly toward Garrison, suspecting that he slept with his ex-wife, Cindi, which is what caused her to divorce him. Considering how Sutherland scales back on some of Bauer’s emotions for this role, while keeping the demanding voice, it’s not certain whether there was anything really to love about David in the first place, at least according to his ex.
So while this potential mole problem in the Secret Service is being investigated and polygraph tests are required all around, we get snippets of the real men behind the plot, though strangely, Garrison is accused of treason because he failed the polygraph test. Don’t expect to find an answer to that and don’t think you’ll find anything else in the midst of these chases, and shootouts at a mall and in an underground parking garage, along with a bedraggled informant and all else that would have been suspenseful had a screenwriter been located who could have turned all this into excitement wrapped around character development.
It’s hard to say how much director Clark Johnson can be blamed for this, especially since it looks like the screenplay directed more of the movie than he did, though the chases were undoubtedly all up to him. Right at the beginning, cinematography Gabriel Beristain gets into a style that looks like white-hot heat had something to do with it and it works for a while, even with the strangely rushed opening credits, as if someone goofed up badly in special effects and the only way to clean it up was to get to the American flag atop the White House roof as quickly as possible. Part Johnson for sure, and part “The Shield”, as we’ve seen it there too. But since the screenplay wasn’t written by anyone from “The Shield” or any other show that can make suspense work, Johnson flounders.
This is also a good time to address Old Man Syndrome in Hollywood. “Firewall”, starring Harrison Ford, is on DVD, where he’s a high-powered banker, threatened, and now Michael Douglas has this. He doesn’t struggle through the film as much as it might be thought, and there is the cheap rimshot with a Depends joke, though it doesn’t compare to the major missed opportunity which may have been too fantastical, but could have been more intriguing, something to think about and therefore something to do while watching.
When Breckinridge corners Garrison at his apartment after letting him know of the treason investigation, he asks Garrison if this is all because he wasn’t made director of the agency. There’s two trailers on the DVD and one of them has Garrison asking Breckinridge why he would be the mole when he initiated the investigation himself. So this idea was thought about! And we got screwed out of a better time, that could have only been made great if Garrison got to use Herbie the Love Bug to get out of his various scrapes.
An audio commentary by Johnson and Nolfi is also on the DVD, along with deleted scenes that show us where the character development went. Through Nolfi’s generally useless comments that talk about what happens in the scenes, as they’re happening, it’s learned that the alternate ending that includes an extra scene between Garrison and Sarah was dropped because Johnson felt it was better the other way. And Johnson was right.
Two featurettes on the Secret Service are actually better-produced than the film, as Sutherland expresses fascination with how the agency does its work and Eva Longoria explains the training that went into making her, Sutherland, and Douglas characters believable in their actions. And it finally confirms the change in policy for former presidents, where Bush is the first president to receive only 10 years of protection after he leaves office. Interestingly, former first ladies are protected only if they don’t divorce or remarry. Jacqueline Kennedy got married to Aristotle Onassis and the Service rescinded protection. The former agent who speaks about these policies doesn’t explain why, but it seems certain that since the new husband wasn’t a political power, there was no reason.
It’s a shame that “The Sentinel” wastes its intelligent façade, because with all the unthrilling thrillers that have come and gone from movie screens, this one might have been worth something. But count the number of times you think there could have been a different plot point inserted to make you keep watching and you’ll see you’re watching the wrong movie.