The Guardian

Director: David Greene   
Martin Sheen, Louis Gossett Jr., Arthur Hill

When we are young, many of us here in the western world think we are invulnerable. You may read about people starving in Africa, but think, "Well, I'm getting three square meals a day - I'm never going to starve." Even if you hear about certain kinds of disasters happening to other people in your country, it is likely during your youth that you'll think that the same kind of calamity will never happen to you. I remember thinking, when I was very young, that my family home would never be hit by a flood. (In fact, I still think that way, seeing that the house that I grew up with was on top of a big hill and over a mile away from the nearest natural water supply.) But as we get older, most of us are struck, to one degree or another, with disasters in our lives that shake us up, make us realize that we are vulnerable and a big calamity could indeed happen in our lives. It certainly happened to me. The first sense I had of my vulnerability was probably when I was five years old and I was a passenger in one car involved in a two car collision on my local highway. Nobody was hurt, but let me tell you I'll be playing those few seconds in my mind over and over again for the rest of my life. There was another incident later in my life that shook me up, this time when I was an adult. One evening, talking to my parents on the telephone, my mother gave me some news - they had been robbed. It seemed that during the night, one or more people had entered their property, went to their car, opened it up, and took a camera my parents had left in the car.

My parents' reaction to the theft was not much more than a shrug - it was a cheap camera, and the thief or thieves hadn't taken or done anything else. Neverless, hearing this news really hit home for me. My parents lived on the outskirts of town, off the highway and onto a small road... and from there onto a smaller road... and off of there onto an even smaller road. If my parents could get robbed living in such an out of the way location, that meant that no one, not even myself, was safe. And what if the criminal or criminals hadn't stopped at just petty theft? They could have easily done something much worse towards my parents. Since then, I have made an extra effort to be safe. I always check the lock on my apartment door is locked before going to bed or before going out. And my building has security cameras on every entrance, so I know that there's less of a chance some creep will come into the building to do me or the other tenants harm. But I still worry time to time, because from time to time I and the other tenants of the building are reminded of the criminal element that's right outside our building. It's not just the fact that we tenants are often greeted with the foul smell of urine when we exit the front door of the building. In a previous review, I revealed that there are many shifty-looking characters who hang around outside the building. There have also been other incidents, like when some unidentified person kicked in the glass of our building's front door, meaning anyone could have walked in the building before the door was repaired. And just a few days ago, the management of the building put up a notice in the lobby warning us tenants that a paroled sex offender was now in the neighborhood.

With concerns like those that keep popping up in my head on a regular basis, you might understand why I decided to take a look at the movie The Guardian. It concerns tenants of an apartment building struggling with a criminal element right outside their doors. It didn't promise to be as graphic and exploitive as the movie Tenement did with this same The Guardianpremise, but promised to be more realistic. I thought that seeing a realistic treatment of this premise could be more horrifying. But there were other reasons why I picked up this movie. One obvious reason was its cast, with notable stars Martin Sheen and Louis Gossett Jr. headlining the movie. The second reason was that the movie was written by the legendary team of Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of shows like Columbo, Mannix, and Murder She Wrote, as well as many made-for-TV movies (which The Guardian is, though it was made for cable network HBO.) Here's the movie's plot description from the back of the video box: "When street violence reaches inside a chic New York apartment building, nervous and frightened residents take preventive measures. On tenant Charlie Hyatt's (Martin Sheen) suggestion, Mr. John Mack (Louis Gossett Jr.), a highly-recommended seasoned professional and ex-military man, is hired as security guard. Mack secures the building; he changes locks; installs strategically-placed mirrors; sets up television surveillance; and moves in. The tenants are drilled, monitored and even reprimanded for disobeying the new house rules, but they feel safe. Several violent incidents occur in which potential crimes are foiled by Mr. Mack, who always acting in self-defence, becomes the hero of the building. Charlie Hyatt gets suspicious and tries to alert the other tenants to his concerns, but by now, they are wallowing in their security. The brutally efficient John Mack, the unfathomable guardian may turn out to be their ultimate danger."

Like most made-for-TV or cable TV movies, the prime function of The Guardian is to entertain. Though unlike most made-for-TV or cable TV movies, it also comes with a message buried underneath. In the end, the movie asks the viewers, "What price are you willing to pay in order to life a live that you would consider safe from potential harm?" The movie doesn't just stop by asking that question, however - it also has an opinion on what most people would answer to that question. And that answer is a somewhat unsettling one. The movie argues that most people would in fact accept a sense of security that has some (or even more) fascist-like qualities within it. Although it is shown that the tenants of the building are somewhat inconvenienced by John Mack's rules and procedures, they are perfectly happy with it in order to have some peace of mind. Even when Charlie Hyatt holds a tenants' meeting and reveals the (circumstantial) evidence he's gathered that suggests John Mack is up to no good, the tenants are unwilling to do anything that might jeopardize their feeling of safety. Who cares if an innocent delivery boy got beat up, or if John Mack gunned down a junkie that broke into the building - it didn't affect them in the least. The Guardian is pretty confident in its feeling that way, right down to the ending of the movie. With Sheen's liberal-thinking and wanting-to-do-good character in the movie, you might think you know what he possibly accomplishes in the end. I will not spoil the ending of the movie, except to say that near the end something happens that I did not expect in any way at all, which then leads to a conclusion that has the movie still fully believing in its beliefs, and not giving us a feeling that the movie copped out in any way at all.

During their partnership, Levinson and Link wrote a lot of fine scripts, this one included. The screenplay for The Guardian doesn't just work because of its conviction to its theme and making us believe it, but for also for constructing believable characters who react in believable ways to whatever goes on during the course of the movie. At the beginning of the movie, not long after a major crime has been committed in their building, Sheen's character and two other tenants mention that they were essentially "drafted" into representing all of the building's tenants for a solution to their crime problem. Knowing how many people are often reluctant to get directly involved in sticky situations, even when a crisis is right next to them, I could believe this. Sheen's character is also not one who is super-smart and seems to know immediately what to do in a situation. As the first suspicious incidents involving Gossett's character start to happen, Sheen is a little suspicious... but it's too early to make any conclusions. When his suspicions grow more later in the movie, he thinks he knows what's going on... but for a long time he doesn't know what to do about it. Indeed, every time he confronts Gossett about some suspicion, Gossett gives a cool and thoughtful explanation that seems to satisfy Sheen... though it may very well be that Sheen does not want to mull over in his mind what might possibly have really happened. Another factor might be is that Gossett's character is one that seems to know how to seduce someone with his mind and words. He's a trained ex-military man, who really seems to know his craft. He's commanding, confident, and when faced with disagreement doesn't shout or lose his cool. It's no wonder he wins the rest of the tenants over.

Another thing that really helps us to be convinced by what these characters do and say are the actors that play them. Gossett, still fresh from his Oscar win for An Officer And A Gentleman, doesn't try to be a hard-ass here. With his calm demeanor, he comes across as very smart and crafty, and he becomes a formidable foe. And while it may not be surprising to see Sheen playing a liberal-minded character, he does not give his character a holier-than-thou attitude. We sense his uncertainty, his reluctance - this is a flawed character. As a bonus, Canadian viewers will get a chuckle by the appearance of some familiar faces, since this movie was a Canada/U.S. co-production that was filmed in Toronto, and needed to hire enough Canadian actors to qualify for Canadian content laws. While filmed in Toronto, director David Greene did manage to disguise the various locations well enough to pass as various places in New York. His direction is a little tight at times, however, maybe worried that if he showed off too much in a shot, the disguise may have crumbled. Also, the more "adult" material in the movie (all of which consists of a few unnecessary raw words and a quick look into the pages of a skin magazine) come across as a desperate way to give the movie "edge". Maybe this was dictated by Greene's bosses at HBO. Whatever the reason, this adult material doesn't really seem to fit here. Without this stuff, the movie could easily have been played on any of the three major U.S. television networks of the time. Since the movie is about 100 minutes long - the running time of many TV movies of the era - I strongly suspect the movie was originally written to be made for a non-cable network. But apart from minor quibbles like those, The Guardian in the end manages to be an engrossing experience, a TV movie that, yes, definitely entertains, but will also make you think for a long time after watching it.

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See also: The Annihilators, Crawlspace, Tenement