In The Sentinel the president (David Rasche) faces a whole new threat: the Secret Service. One of its most respected agents Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) is assigned to take care of the first lady (Kim Basinger) and does he ever! He has an affair with her which while utterly absurd sets the real story in motion. He receives steamy photos of the two in a blackmail scheme that he learns is part of an assassination attempt on the Prez for which he’s being framed. The agent spearheading the investigation David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) grows skeptical of Garrison whom he thinks had an affair with his wife. Before long Garrison’s on the lam in true “it wasn’t me it was the one armed guy” fashion. He’ll stop at nothing to clear his name and bring the bad guy(s) to justice even if it means hooking up to the Internet from a gas station (?) via his Dell computer the tech brand apparently most trusted by the Secret Service. Michael Douglas is back and…the same as ever. He loves to play his roles safe and it doesn’t get safer for him than the urbane almost-over-the-hill pro who yells a lot. He has a stranglehold on baby boomers who’ve stuck with him through thick and Catherine Zeta-Jones and they won’t be disappointed. Sutherland--the son of over-actors if Douglas is the father thereof--acts like he was filming on his 24 set which will make his devoted fans just as happy. The actors engage in one shouting match and it’s as engrossing as it is hilarious surprisingly. There should’ve been more of that dynamic since it’s apparently why people like these two. Eva Longoria appears in her first big movie to date and while she shows promise she’s dug herself a deep (pigeon)hole with Desperate Housewives: Fans long for a scantily clad drama queen not a docile fully clothed rookie agent. Think Sandra Bullock’s first big film role: Demolition Man. For a brief moment The Sentinel entertains us with an interesting and perhaps topical notion that a Secret Service agent with clear access to the president could be plotting an assassination. But then that’s where all the “entertaining” parts of the movie ceases of course. S.W.A.T. director Clark Johnson is at the helm here and he does up Washington D.C. Hollywood-style (in addition to giving himself a brief but important role in the film). Johnson tries to insert Sentinel into his S.W.A.T. template but S.W.A.T. for starters was R-rated and Sentinel should’ve been. When it’s not tripping over its implausibility The Sentinel trips over its predictability thanks to all of its more original predecessors from which it pilfers. And there’s so much product placement that if the film doesn’t do well at the box office we could see a ripple effect throughout the entire economy.
Like most American families the Grombergs are a little dysfunctional despite their amazing loft apartment sensational Apple computers and successful family law firm. Middle-aged Alex (Michael Douglas) is what his son Asher (Cameron Douglas) calls a "soggy cracker": a corporate attorney who's always worried about something he works in a soup kitchen and takes pro bono work to assuage his middle-class guilt over his day job. He also struggles to understand his oldest son who's a failure in college but does well enough as a drug dealer and DJ. Alex's father Mitchell (Kirk Douglas) meanwhile is your standard powerbroker-cum-bored-retiree; he founded the law firm where Alex now works and if Alex's whining is to be believed spent most of his time there while his son was growing up and definitely didn't do much understanding. These three main characters are so self-absorbed that it's not surprising the story of their lives comes off about as interesting as a soup-soaked Saltine; thank goodness for mom Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) who manages at least on occasion to be something other than tolerant and uptight second son Eli (Rory Culkin) a karate champion with a crush on the class runaway a sixth-grade goth girl.
Interestingly it's young Culkin of that other famous Hollywood clan who steals the show with a deadpan delivery that would make Jerry Seinfeld proud. His performance aside It Runs in the Family is notable for its four-for-the-price-of-one special on Douglases: There's grandpa Kirk his ex-wife Diana as the grandmother of the clan son Michael and grandson Cameron in his first role. If you thought it would be creepy watching a family of Douglases play a family on the big screen you were right. It's beyond creepy--it's uncanny in that is-this-real-or-is-this-a-movie kind of way and the acting style is eerily familiar too. Everybody wants to be the good guy everybody wants to say the punch line and nobody wants to take any chances. Still the Douglases seems to take great joy in their own movie and in working together and that brings a certain joy to the audience; despite its pervasive cherish-your-family theme there are moments when it doesn't go over the top and these are charming--if few and far between.
Director Fred Schepisi makes ubiquitous use of several generations of Douglas family photos to punctuate various scenes in the film--usually the ones where we're supposed to realize how much they love each other and learn what family really means. The audience is meant to come away with a nice smarmy sense of the quirky little realities of this "everyfamily " but just in case you didn't get it the characters--like the actors--don't take any chances that might make you question just how "nice" they really are; they resist any real rebellion or risk and there's always someone willing to try to understand if they do occasionally screw up. Aside from making for a pretty dull film it doesn't ring particularly true. For all the actors are really a family they don't seem very comfortable with one another on the screen so their characters' squabbles and heartfelt admissions come off stilted and forced their reactions seem too controlled and their relationships ironically don't give the audience a sense of any real bond between them.
The moral of Swimfan is simple (and one that's been handed down from film upon film before it): Don't mess around with a girl teetering on the edge of insanity 'cause nothing good is going to come of it. Still we all know the drill. 18-year-old Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has it all--a loving girlfriend Amy (Shiri Appleby) a promising shot at a swim scholarship with Stanford University and a good job at his mom's (Kate Burton) hospital. That is until he meets Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) the sexy new girl in school who decides she'd like to get to know the handsome Ben a little better. One thing leads to another and--bada-bing! bada-bam!--there they are makin' waves in the pool. Ben doesn't feel great about cheating on Amy and hopes his dalliance and his guilt will just go away. But Madison will not be ignored. After he spurns her she proceeds to systematically ruin his life until ultimately murder becomes the primary objective. Save some glaring implausibilities (how can one teenage girl have so many resources at her fingertips?) Swimfan manages to get its point across.
Obviously what will draw people to this movie is the talent and Swimfan gathers a able collection of good-looking youngsters to carry the movie. Bradford (Bring It On) has a baby face that belies a growing maturity to his acting. He's a natural. Bradford and Appleby (TV's Roswell) are also refreshingly believable as a young couple in love without too much sugar coating. They have an honest moment together sitting at a restaurant while he is trying to get her to forgive him--it's a nice chemistry and you end up rooting for them. Christensen however is the one we all really want to see. Since her fantastic performance as the teenage junkie in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic two years ago she's been touted as one of Hollywood's young performers to watch. At first she infuses Madison with a fair amount of intelligence and wit; she actually seems pretty sane. While the young actress is obviously talented this particular approach works to her disadvantage later when she goes off the deep end. It seems almost forced. Christensen is much better at the cool manipulative and charismatic persona rather than the "look-out-I-have-a-knife" one. She is still one to watch though once she gets her hands on some great material.
OK so there isn't anything new about this concept. Some may cite Clint Eastwood's 1971 Play Misty for Me as the first classic chick-stalker movie and since then there have been some great ones (Fatal Attraction) and some not so great (The Crush). Swimfan falls somewhere in between. For the sake of moving the story along it asks you to suspend your disbelief quite a bit. How could Madison get her hands on hospital drugs or be strong enough to do some of the things she does? Still the direction surprises you at times. Actor-turned-director John Polson isn't going to win any awards but knows how to use the camera effectively. The film captures its actors and the surroundings in a lush way. One particular editing technique he uses is the quick cuts when emphasizing an actor's emotional reaction. When Madison is rejected he cuts between her slightly varying wounded glares. It works. Unfortunately the film still falls into the same tired clichés set by much better predecessors.