Director Clark Johnson appears briefly in his new film, The Sentinel, as the black guy who dies first. As soon as he shows up, playing Secret Service Agent Charlie Merriweather, you know he’s that character, because he takes aside his buddy, fellow agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas), to say, “I need to talk to you about something,” then glance up at the surveillance camera, as if glancing up at the eye of God. Yes, his goose is cooked. He knows it and you know it too.
But just because the part is familiar doesn’t mean Johnson doesn’t have fun with it. Best known as Homicide‘s Detective Meldrick Lewis, Johnson knows his way around a murder plot, and since he’s started directing — Sleeper Cell, The Shield, S.W.A..T., among other tv and movie titles — he’s shown a talent for creating tension and great characters at the same time, no mean feat. Here, Merriweather starts the plot, his function revealed as much by the camera’s hovering as his unease, and though he’s only on screen a couple of minutes, total, his time is sharp, entertaining, clichéd, and pretty much perfect.
Pete’s time is less so. He’s got backstory, introduced by the usual means, a nightmare showing that he took a bullet for Reagan on that day in 1981 and still wakes clutching his side and wound up in his sweaty bedsheets. Haunted and stern, Pete never gets a chance to talk to Merriweather, of course, which means he needs to figure out what had his friend worried, guessing only that it had something to do with his murder. The lead investigator on the case, Protective Intelligence Division director David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland, playing a somewhat less urgent version of Jack Bauer, that is, a tough, under-pressure, principled special agent), comes to the came conclusion. But as he comes with his own backstory — he blames his mentor Pete for breaking up his marriage because, well, Pete did sleep with David’s ex-wife — David also thinks Pete has something to do with the murder.
Even aside from their personal history, David has reason for such speculation, including a convenient trail of evidence (phone records and such) and Pete’s shifty behavior. In fact, this behavior results from another secret, Pete’s current affair with the First Lady, also known as Sarah (Kim Basinger), whom he’s assigned to protect. It’s a cheesy B-movie tack, and Douglas and Basinger play it as grand melodrama: with the camera close, they lean into one another, their breath gaspy, their shoulders bared. Shocking: they accidentally leave one curtain just barely open, so you know, seeing that gap of dark night behind them, that their ridiculously bad idea of a romance will soon be exposed.
The exposure leads to more secrets and dangers for Pete, who learns by way of “one of his informants” (Raynor Scheine) that someone inside the Secret Service is working with outsiders to assassinate President Ballentine (David Rasche). Once this bit of intel drops, the entire Secret Service unit goes a little ballistic with polygraphs and furtive looks because, well, in the 141-year history of the service, no one has ever been the slightest bit disloyal to the president. It’s all about honor and dedication and adherence to long-established codes, and so, well, the breach of all this stuff (not to mention Pete’s indiscretion) constitutes something of a meltdown.
David’s operation depends on his monumental personal integrity, investigative brilliance, and admirably abrasive personality. According to his ex, he’s “the most pig-headed man I’ve ever met”; his colleagues all agree he’s a by-the-book hardcase who will follow the evidence wherever it leads. And so the film saddles him with a wholly unnecessary distraction, newbie agent Jill (Eva Longoria), who arrives in tight skirt and cleavage-revealing blouse, inspiring David’s admonition (“Button up your jacket”) and a joke that runs throughout the film, whereby male agents remark on her appearance or ask her out or just ogle her obviously (I suppose if you’re going to cast the deliriously overexposed Longoria — and give her a weapon, to boot — you might as well make fun of the fact that you’ve done so).
David and what’s-her-name follow a series of bogus leads while Pete (now on the run, as he’s their main suspect) follows his own course. His seems more legit because he’s working more ingeniously, with less sophisticated equipment (he makes a stop at Radio Shack for the Magyverish essentials). The bad guys are really bad (with scruffy faces, dour expressions, and come-and-go Russian accents; their self-description as ex-KGB stands in for explanation of motive: in the post-Soviet era, they’re looking for work). And the set-pieces are pretty set: a shootout at a mall, the downing of Marine One by surface-to-air missile, a shipboard chase scene, and a final showdown at a G8 Summit in Toronto (complete with raucous protestors).
The president is a nonentity in all this, as the subterfuge and counterplanning and his wife’s shenanigans all go on without his knowledge: when at last he is being shot at, Ballentine looks appropriately afraid while his detail goes into super-action mode, making their shots with precision and taking out bad guy after bad guy. But the most important element here — the relationship between David and Pete — remains somewhat submerged beneath the actionation. That said, the film’s most effective moments stage this relationship as or in action: they argue, they chase, they aim guns at one another. In one heated face to face (both actors are surely adept at such engagements), Pete delivers the punch line. David asserts that they’re not talking about the affair with David’s wife, and Pete ends it: “We’re always talking about that even when we’re not talking about it!”
Better, after instructing his team to shoot Pete even though it will be hard (“For most of you, he’s a friend, for some, a legend”), David has a chance to shoot him himself. Barely pausing, he finds a way to do it and not do it at the same time, provoking Pete’s terrific taunt: “You wanna shoot me!?” he yells, “Shoot me in my face!” Grrr.
And that’s really the point here: The Sentinel is about boys, bonding, squabbling, scheming, running, and shooting. Shooting a lot. Because that’s what boys do in formula films. They shoot each other. Just not in the face.