2 stars (out of four)

In the late 1980s Michael Douglas started sleeping with women he shouldn't--on screen, that is--and became the iconic Clinton-era movie star. The actor proved himself a durable commodity back in his "Streets of San Francisco" days and, later, in "Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile" as well as "Wall Street" (which won him an Oscar). Then Douglas laid his grimace on the never-trust-a-dame trifecta of "Fatal Attraction," "Basic Instinct" and "Disclosure." This cemented Douglas' image as America's multiplex horndog, part victim, part avenger--the wronged satyr, the one with father Kirk's jawline, if not his buoyant charisma or peerless dimple.

In "The Sentinel," a thriller that begins well but middles and ends less well, Douglas is back messing around with someone else's woman. He plays ace Secret Service man Pete Garrison, the man who took a bullet for Ronald Reagan back in '81. (This is fiction; the agent who took that bullet, Tim McCarthy, is today the Orland Park police chief.) Now Garrison heads the security team guarding First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger), wife of an empty-suit Democratic president, played by David Rasche, who must've spent some time on the "Sentinel" set wondering, "Why do I not have Michael Douglas' career?"

Out at the presidential beach house, a murmured exchange of pleasantries between Garrison and the first lady quickly leads to some ha-cha, our first indication that these two have been sneaking around for some time. Establishing this intriguing development fairly early on, "The Sentinel" soon skitters off in other, awkwardly plotted and credulity-straining directions. The film is more concerned with a plot to kill the president involving multinational evildoers; an ancient, entirely unwarranted grudge between Garrison and his Secret Service protege (Kie fer Sutherland); and, once Garrison becomes the Wrong Man, a cat-and-mouse scramble of the "Fugitive" kind.

The co-stars try not to look like they're slumming while on hiatus. Sutherland, Mr. Man thanks to the TV series "24," partners with Eva Longoria ("Desperate Housewives"), who plays his assistant. They're in a race against time to determine whether Garrison is the Secret Service mole trying to do in the commander in chief. He's not, of course. This is never in doubt. The identity of the real mole is so easy to guess, when the revelation comes you half-expect it to come with an apology.

Generic thrillers such as "The Sentinel" proceed by way of the usual three-act structure. It's weird: Decades after the era when Broadway plays still came in three acts, screenwriters of all ages have gotten more and more formulaically stringent about nailing that three-act breakdown. Here, the breakdown really does break down: After a solid first third, "The Sentinel" wobbles and lurches and starts unsurprising you with its unsurprises. Director Clark Johnson, who did the lame big-screen version of "S.W.A.T.," throws a ton of empty technique swish-pans and stutter-zooms at the action, most of which plays like visual insecurity. Amid the nervousness Douglas and Sutherland do what they can to enliven their warring stereotypes. And now and then, blessedly, "The Sentinel" nudges toward camp. At Camp David, when Douglas and Basinger steal away in order to exchange plot information, they're supposed to look as inconspicuous as possible. Yet these two stoic glamo r machines look so hilariously conspicuous in their tres-chic sunglasses and attention-getting skulking, you think: They want to get caught.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'The Sentinel'

Directed by Clark Johnson; screenplay by George Nolfi, based on the novel by Gerald Petievich; cinematography by Gabriel Beristain; edited by Cindy Mollo; production design by Andrew McAlpine; music by Christophe Beck; produced by Michael Douglas, Marcy Drogin and Arnon Milchan. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some intense action violence and a scene of sensuality).

Pete Garrison - Michael Douglas

David Breckinridge - Kiefer Sutherland

Jill Marin - Eva Longoria

William Montrose - Martin Donovan

Sarah Ballentine - Kim Basinger