Watching The Guardian, you will learn that the U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue swimmers rank among the bravest and least heralded of military personnel, selflessly hurling themselves into raging currents or hurricane swells to save a single human life. But I doubt that even these knights in neoprene armor could rescue an audience from The Guardian’s torrent of watery clichés. Here’s a few for starters: the grizzled senior chief swimmer (Kevin Costner) who arrives home from work one day to find his neglected wife (Sela Ward) moving out; the deadly snafu at sea and ensuing post-traumatic stress that send our hero from the stormy Bering to a tranquil teaching post; the cocky young cadet (Ashton Kutcher) who we know is a wiseass because he’s the only recruit who shows up for boot camp sporting aviator shades; the comely townie (Melissa Sagemiller) who’s only interested in “casual” relationships, having been burned by her share of hotshot aqua jocks. And that’s just the first 20 minutes! By the time it’s over — two full hours later — we will have witnessed countless ooo-ra! training montages, Kutcher attaining manly wisdom, Costner transforming from Yoda-like guru to messianic martyr, and more false endings than the last Lord of the Rings picture.

Directed by Andrew Davis, The Guardian is scaled as an epic, but the script (by first-time screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff) is like a 1940s promilitary quickie decked out with more padding than a Berber carpet, and unlike the current Flyboys, it takes no real joy in its cornball contrivances. It’s leaden. That’s something of a surprise coming from Davis, who remains best known for his propulsive big-screen version of The Fugitive, but who began his career with a series of smart and highly efficient B actioners that included two of Steven Seagal’s best vehicles: Above the Law and Under Siege. (Admittedly, Davis’ more recent résumé includes the aptly titled Collateral Damage.) Here, you can’t fault Davis for his handling of action — the film’s perilous open-water rescue scenes are duly visceral — but he can’t disguise his fatigue with the material, and that’s the sort of thing that can make a movie sink faster than muscle in the pool.

The Guardian is not without its token pleasures, chiefly Costner, who’s aged very nicely into playing over-the-hill former golden boys (see Tin Cup and The Upside of Anger) and who here gets a couple of affecting scenes with a brassy barroom blues singer (the legendary Bonnie Bramlett) that are all about coming to terms with the ebbing of youth. More surprising is Kutcher, whose shit-eating grin and I-fucked-Demi-Moore strut are well suited to the part of a preening high school swim champ who has a thing or two to learn about selfless heroism. (I forewarn you — lest you risk choking on your popcorn — that there are a couple of scenes in which the boy actually emotes, which, on the grading curve that finds Josh Hartnett a suitable leading man, might qualify Kutcher as the Laurence Olivier of the MySpace generation.)

But The Guardian isn’t really about growing old, or growing up. It’s about all of the you-are-there verisimilitude Hollywood dollars can buy, from the custom-built wave tank where much of the movie was shot to the rigorous training the actors were subjected to so as to appear capable in their roles. But what’s the good of all that “authenticity” in a movie where the crises and characters are so hollow they don’t need to tread water to float? The Guardian is being released by the Touchstone Pictures arm of The Walt Disney Company, and it is, I would wager, exactly the kind of movie that Disney studio head Dick Cook had in mind when he recently decided to cut back the studio’s annual production quota to focus on more sure-fire tent-pole fare like Pirates of the Caribbean. In other words, it’s not serious enough to take seriously, and it isn’t flashy enough to get by on thrills alone. To be sure, there are worse ways to spend an early-fall afternoon, but this is that rare movie that leaves you pining for the Jerry Bruckheimer touch.

Making it through the rescue-swimmer training program seems like a cakewalk compared to surviving the mean streets of Astoria, Queens, circa 1986. That’s the setting for writer-director Dito Montiel’s debut feature, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, in which Montiel’s teenage alter ego (Shia LaBeouf) spends a long, hot New York summer navigating neighborhood turf wars, his first full-fledged romance and the gnawing desire to set off for life beyond the Hell Gate Bridge. “My name’s Dito, and I’m going to leave everyone in this film,” LaBeouf says soberly into the camera in an early scene, and the remainder of Guide is mostly about how the adult Dito (played with uncommon reserve by Robert Downey Jr.) returns to the old neighborhood to make amends with his dying father (Chazz Palminteri) and pick up other relationships he abruptly ended some 20 years before.

At Sundance, where it won the dramatic-directing prize as well as a special award for its acting ensemble, Guide generated comparisons to everything from early Scorsese to American Graffiti to Do the Right Thing, for mostly superficial reasons having to do with location, weather, the ethnic makeup of the characters (Italian, Nicaraguan and Puerto Rican) and the plethora of period pop songs on the soundtrack. But what almost nobody mentioned was how thoroughly, excitingly strange the movie is. Like a series of fragmentary remembrances colliding violently in Montiel’s head, the movie is ragged and shapeless and pretty much in violation of all the narrative and storytelling conventions film schools attempt to hammer into young directors. Scenes start and end abruptly and seem ordered in any which way; images and dialogue are repeated without apparent motive; there’s no narrative “through line” of which to speak. At times, it’s as if we’re watching one of the diary films of the great home-movie anthologist Jonas Mekas, except that you can’t tell if Montiel is doing any of this by design, or if he’s being commanded by some inner biological force.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is like a piece of naif art — a movie by someone who scarcely seems to have seen a movie before, let alone made one. And perhaps for that very reason, it’s forceful and alive and spilling over with crazy poetry. It seems to spring from a place so deep inside Montiel that almost every image he puts on the screen resonates with deep feeling, even if we don’t immediately (or ever) understand what it means or what it’s doing there, until we emerge from the film wreathed in the sweaty stick of New York summers, of sexually inexperienced bodies rubbing against one another in apartment stairwells, and of memories that refuse to fade. This is hardly the nostalgia trip of a wayward youth saved by the straight and narrow. Rather, in Montiel’s world, much is left unresolved, and the healing, when it comes, does so in pieces.

THE GUARDIAN | Directed by ANDREW DAVIS | Written by RON L. BRINKERHOFF | Produced by BEAU FLYNN and TRIPP VINSON | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide

A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS | Written and directed by DITO MONTIEL, based on his book | Produced by TRUDIE STYLER, TRAVIS SWORDS, CHARLIE CORWIN and CLARA MARKOWICZ | Released by First Look Studios | Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7, Sunset 5, Westside Pavilion

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