'The Sentinel'

EntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeU.S. Secret ServiceCrimeCelebritiesTelevision

"The Sentinel" is an unassuming thriller, a nifty piece of genre filmmaking without frills or self-importance. It's a throwback, if you will, to the days of B pictures, when formula movies were made with a maximum of skill and a minimum of pretense.

Set in the no-nonsense domain of the U.S. Secret Service, where smiling on duty is apparently a capital offense, "The Sentinel" is made by people who not only believe in telling these kinds of stories, they believe in telling them right.

Playing veteran Secret Service operatives Pete Garrison and David Breckinridge, agents who butt heads when an insidious threat imperils the life of the president, are a couple of actors who've done well by wearing badges.

Though Michael Douglas has gone on to more prestigious projects, his "Streets of San Francisco" days are fondly remembered. And Kiefer Sutherland's diligence as "24's" Jack Bauer is about to make him the highest-paid actor in television. As for director Clark Johnson, he has an extensive résumé of TV cop show credits, including such class acts as "The Wire," "NYPD Blue," "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

Even before directing, Johnson worked as a performer on such a large number of police shows that he once half-seriously claimed to have played "so many cops in my career as an actor that I know more about cop work than some real cops do."

Like his debut feature, 2003's Samuel L. Jackson-Colin Farrell "S.W.A.T.," "The Sentinel" bears the hallmarks of Johnson's experience as a director: It is briskly done and highly professional, mixing to-the-point conversations with bracing action sequences. The director even takes a cameo, as a Secret Service agent whose murder gets the plot rolling.

As written by George Nolfi (also credited with the abysmal "Ocean's Twelve") from the book by Secret Service agent turned novelist Gerald Petievich, "The Sentinel" centers on agent Garrison (Douglas), the man in charge of security for First Lady Sarah Ballentine (an elegant Kim Basinger).

A devoted service veteran who once took a bullet for President Reagan, Garrison is the kind of guy who still gets up at 4 a.m. every day to stay in protective shape. Douglas, now 61 and aging into someone every bit as determinedly craggy as his father, is completely at home playing a driven perfectionist who knows how to look lean and mean in designer sunglasses.

"The Sentinel" goes to considerable trouble to take us into the world of the Secret Service both visually and verbally. We see (courtesy of production designer Andrew McAlpine) all the paraphernalia of presidential security, from sniffing dogs to binoculars the size of rolling pins, and we hear an inordinate number of people saying "Copy that."

New to this world is fetching rookie agent Jill Marin ("Desperate Housewives' " Eva Longoria), who gets assigned to unimpressed top investigator Breckinridge (Sutherland), who welcomes her with a tart "Aren't you the recruiting poster?" then proceeds to give her grief about her stylish outfit and snarls "résumés don't mean a lot to me."

Breckinridge, it turns out, does a lot of snarling, especially at Garrison. The two were best friends until Something Came Between Them, and now (with Sutherland gaining authority from those years on "24") they never miss an opportunity to go toe to toe and verbally duke it out.

All of this comes to a head when a plot is uncovered to kill the president with the help of (gasp) the first traitor in the service's 141-year history. All evidence points to Garrison, and wouldn't you know it, Breckinridge is a bear at following evidence.

Garrison does have a secret the service doesn't know about, but we know the charge is a frame because traitors don't get up at 4 a.m. to work out. It's still quite a job to convince Breckinridge as well as nail the real bad guys before they do their worst.

"The Sentinel" is helped by Gabriel Beristáin's smooth cinematography, Cindy Mollo's editing and Christophe Beck's energizing score. Yes, it's not always plausible and unapologetically by the numbers, but when the numbers are polished to such a high sheen, it would be next door to treason to complain.

'The Sentinel'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some intense action violence and a scene of sensuality.

A 20th Century Fox release. Director Clark Johnson. Producers Michael Douglas, Marcy Drogin, Arnon Milchan. Screenplay George Nolfi, based on the novel by Gerald Petievich. Director of photography Gab

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