Perfunctorily competent at its best, but to be dismissed as idiotic at its worst (and it’s more often the latter than the former), The Sentinel is a hesitating, timid, strictly by-the-book political thriller which is lamentably short on actual thrills, and completely devoid of any appreciable political content.
To be sure, there is the potential lurking here for a real corker of a paranoia-infused potboiler simmering in the film’s premise: a mole working within the heretofore unblemished Secret Service is involved in a plot to assassinate the President., and the one man (Agent Pete Garrison, played with square-jawed pugnacity by Michael Douglas) able to unravel the conspiracy is, of course, framed for it, driven underground to clear his good name, until he exposes the baddies and saves the day. Oh, and then of course he’s also being blackmailed for his steamy clandestine affair with the First Lady (Kim Bassinger) to boot. And the internal affairs agent (Kiefer Sutherland) chasing him down is his estranged best friend.
On paper, a good enough start, I guess. But a really daring film — something like the great politically charged cinematic wigouts of the ’70s — would eschew the predictable courses of these threads and capitalize on the lunacy burbling under all this preposterousness. The key to success in a thriller must be in the execution: never play straight with the audience, but zig when they expect you to zag, implicate everyone regardless of innocence or culpability (audience included), and transmute the pulpy genre trappings into some sort of barometer of the current socio-political climate.
The times are rife for just that sort of film, something to kick us out of our complacency and put the scare back in us. Alas, The Sentinel is not this film. Hell, I would’ve been happy even with a pale shadow of those underrated similarly minded films from the early ’90s such as In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive. But The Sentinel is content to run its course so strictly by the playbook that one could watch the opening 10 minutes, the closing 10 minutes, and accurately fill in the remainder of the film without having seen it.
Director Clark Johnson (who has directed episodes of the late, great Homicide and The Shield), though far from a hack, betrays his television roots early and often, stringing the film together in episodic bursts that seem almost deliberately edited more for commercial breaks than theatrical release. Character and plot slot into exactly the spaces we expect them to: every frame of the film smacks of television formula, driven forward more by genre obligation than by narrative necessity. There’s a sense, in the two-dimensional flatness of motives and interactions, that what we are watching is a set up for a longer narrative that we’ll revisit on a week-to-week and episode-to-episode basis, each time with a new crisis competently resolved. Indeed, the film works nearly perfectly as a pilot for a television program destined to be picked up as a midseason replacement, something to serve as a lead into a like-minded show, something like… hmmm…
Wait! Who’s that with the second billing on the marquee again, playing the dogged internal affairs investigator? Is that Special Agent Jack Bauer I descry? More than anything else, The Sentinel could use a strong swig of the sort of off-the-hook lunacy that has informed 24 over its five season run. Though that show can be politically muddled and timid in its own way, it never fails to go straight for the jugular — throwing huge haymakers at any targets that get in its way even as it pursues its own oftentimes confused agenda The Sentinel, however, stumbles, and badly, by basically tripping itself up right out of the gate, ignoring any potential risk-taking salvos by presenting a front just as stone faced as its Secret Service heroes.
With its pairing of a bland apolitical President and a cadre of multinational conspirators (typical ex-Eastern Bloc heavies coupled with swishy Brits) who seem to have no more pressing reason for killing the President other than that’s what the script demands of them, we never get a sense of urgency about any of this, that something truly dire and potentially catastrophic threatens to explode at any second. The Sentinel seems to exist in a pre-9/11 world where all threats are regarded in the abstract and there’s never a doubt that integrity and the “just cause” will prevail. The film would be quaintly anachronistic if it weren’t so disappointing.
A lack of confusion — among both the characters and for the audience — is the absolute death of films of this ilk, and there is little that isn’t completely clear about how The Sentinel will develop. The mole is telegraphed early on, the honor and innocence of Garrison are never in doubt, and it’s guaranteed that the tough as nails internal affairs agent will cave in and take a leap of faith for the old friend he just shot in the back, and together they’ll crack the conspiracy. Everything you expect to happen in a prescribed fashion does. In an alternate ending included among the deleted scenes on the DVD, we are even offered the truly mind destroying possibility of Garrison and the First Lady living happily every after, sailing off into the sunset (literally). So, as stultifyingly hopeless as The Sentinel already is, it could’ve been that much worse.
Other deleted scenes fill in the back stories of the main characters, though with relative insignificance. Sutherland’s character — remarkably restrained throughout — seems like he could’ve been a bit more Bauer-esque given the proper editing. (So all you 24 fans are liable to be disappointed, though Sutherland does spit out a venomous “DAMNIT!” once or twice when things go awry, and throws down some predictably porous perimeters around crime scenes, he never gives full vent to his 24 alter ego. The film is that much the worse for it). But it’s hard to think of any of these deletions adding any extra bite to The Sentinel, as the direction is mostly to fault. Director Johnson’s and screenwriter George Nolfi’s chatty commentary goes into some interesting details regarding working with ex-Secret Service agents, but is more or less silent on what the real motives of the film were intended to be. Like the Secret Service itself, apoliticism is the watchword, here.
Rounding out the extras is a pair of short mini-documentaries on the Secret Service. Though somewhat self-congratulatory, they do serve up some odd and intriguing little facts. Like, for example, did you know that the Secret Service was originally established by Lincoln during the end of the Civil Was as an agency to track down counterfeiters and forgers? Or that Lincoln signed the bill establishing the Secret Service on April 13th, 1865 — the day before he became the first US president to be assassinated? Or that the Secret Service ceases to protect ex-First Ladies if they remarry (so did they shadow Jackie Kennedy down the aisle, but high tail it out of the church the moment Onassis put the ring on her finger)? They also delve briefly into procedural details, discussing the various aspects of training, recruitment, and logistics. Unfortunately, both docs are too short to truly satisfy, but watching them I wondered whether The Sentinel would’ve been better as a feature length documentary on the deceptively intriguing Secret Service, rather than the wreck of a narrative film that it turned out to be.