Spotlight On Andrew Davis

Action films laced with smarts

October 06, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Andrew Davis isn't interested in glorifying the military. At least not the part of the military that fights wars and sends people into battle.

Nonetheless his latest film, The Guardian, marches to a military drumbeat of sorts. Its focus is on the U.S. Coast Guard, specifically the Guard's rescue swimmers, whose job is to fish people out of the ocean before time and tide take their deadly toll. The movie, Davis' 14th as a feature-film director, stars Kevin Costner as a mythic rescue swimmer looking to pass the torch, and Ashton Kutcher as a rough-around-the-edges recruit.

Long regarded as one of Hollywood's best action directors, Davis says he wanted to avoid making a film that glorified the military as a fighting force. "I wouldn't have made a movie that waved the flag about how great it was to go to war, absolutely not," he says over the phone from Washington, where he had just finished last-minute preparations for the film's Sept. 7 premiere, a benefit for the Coast Guard Foundation. "My intention was to celebrate people whose lives were there to save other people. ... The Coast Guard represents what I would hope the world views the best of America to be."

Davis started his film career as a cinematographer; in the mid-'70s, he was a key figure in attempts to open up the industry and its unions to young talent, eventually lending his name to a class action lawsuit (Davis et al. vs. IATSE et al.) that did just that. His first film as a director, the low-budget, self-produced Story Island, was released in 1978.

He emerged as something of a thinking-man's action director with 1992's Under Siege, starring Steven Seagal as a ship's cook who single-handedly takes on a boatload of black-market arms merchants. The film, which co-starred Tommy Lee Jones and Erika Eleniak, may be the only entry in its genre: Steven Seagal movies that critics liked.

Davis followed that with his signature film, 1993's The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford as a physician on the run after being falsely accused of murdering his wife and Jones as the federal marshal assigned to catch him. The film not only won a supporting actor Oscar for Jones, but also garnered a nomination for best picture.

Since then, Davis' films have included 1998's A Perfect Murder, a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, and 2002's Collateral Damage, with a vengeful Arnold Schwarzenegger taking on (seemingly) every terrorist in South America. Three years ago, his adaptation of Louis Sachor's Holes, about a boy serving time in a desert prison, achieved two objectives: It introduced Davis to a wider audience (thanks to its youth-friendly PG rating) and it enabled him to work alongside his dad, veteran stage actor Nathan Davis, who was cast in a bit part.

The success of Holes notwithstanding, Davis' reputation as an action director unwilling to sacrifice narrative in favor of blowing more things up remains secure. Striking a balance between action and story doesn't involve any secret formula, Davis insists, just care and determination.

"You try to make the environment very real," he says. "The job I have as a filmmaker is to try and make it seem honest. ... At the same time, people want a little bit of an edge to things, to make it entertaining."

The director also aims to produce films that are a notch above standard shoot-'em-up fare by remaining topical and infusing them with some sense of morality.

"I was a journalism major; I wanted to be Walter Cronkite when I was a kid," Davis says. "I think telling a story that has some content and some social relevance is important. I've tried to do that in the films I've made. The Fugitive was about the manipulations of pharmaceutical companies, The Package was about the Cold War and the military-industrial complex.

"Even Under Siege was basically a bit of a wink, but it had some [insights] into the dangers of atomic weaponry, and what happens if things get out of control. So there was an underlying `What are we doing here?' comment there, that maybe we shouldn't be playing around with these things. That's what appealed to me."

The Guardian turned out to be even more affected by current events than Davis could have realized. To shoot the movie's ocean-rescue scenes, the filmmakers had a water tank built outside New Orleans -- weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit last summer. The tank was irreparably damaged by the storm, and a new one had to be built in Shreveport, La., northwest of New Orleans. "We were literally being battered by storms in the making of this movie," Davis says.

But Katrina also helped bring much-deserved attention to the film's subjects. Rescue swimmers were called upon to save dozens of lives during the storm, giving them a prominence they have rarely known. "Before Katrina," Davis notes, "nobody even knew who these guys were."

If The Guardian ends up serving as a recruitment poster for the Coast Guard, Davis won't mind.

"I think people want to believe that there's a role for Americans, to be involved in an organization where they have discipline and regimens and routines and ranks, but where they go out and do wonderful things to help people," he says. "If the armies of the world started feeding people and rebuilding houses and protecting people, it would be great."

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