There was barely a moment during The Sentinel when I wasn't tense. And not because it's a good thriller. If it's a sense of danger you're after, try sampling one of those slimy hot dogs from the cinema foyer. No, the cause of my anxiety was the film's star, Michael Douglas. A thriller loses something vital if you start worrying about the hero's blood pressure whenever he attempts anything more taxing than a brisk walk, and this is the case with Douglas. The suspension of disbelief needed to picture him as a lithe fighting machine is so great that it requires an industrial winch. When he's exercising on his treadmill, you just wish he would put his feet up and watch Countdown. Every time he is faced with a flight of stairs, you pray he will take the lift instead.
Douglas plays Pete Garrison, a secret service agent who took a bullet for Ronald Reagan and is still having nightmares about it - possibly imagining how much brighter the 1980s might have turned out if not for his reckless gallantry. Now he is guarding President Ballentine (David Rasche), while also clocking up some serious overtime providing a very secret service indeed for the First Lady (Kim Basinger).
We know Pete's business is protection, so at least safe sex isn't likely to be an issue in their affair. But now a blackmailer has been snapping the illicit couple engaged in an activity that doesn't appear to involve going over the security arrangements - or not unless they are unusually exciting security arrangements. At the same time, a plot to assassinate the president is uncovered. Keen-eyed viewers will pick up hints of this from the shots of threatening messages scrawled in a spidery hand: "You will feel the pain, President", "President will be shot". What can it all mean? Apart from reminding us that psychopaths in films always write down their plans and display appalling penmanship.
Just when Pete thinks his day can't get any worse, it transpires that there's a mole in the secret service. Could it be the shifty head of security who only ever looks at people out of the corner of his eye? Could it be Pete himself? Or could the mole be the shifty head of security who - oh, I already mentioned him. As you might discern, The Sentinel is as short on suspects as it is on plausibility.
When Pete goes on the run after being framed for a colleague's murder, his former protégé David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) is only too happy to hunt him down, since he believes Pete had an affair with his wife. What is it with this guy and other men's wives? We learn that secret service agents rarely draw their weapons without using them, but in Pete's case this isn't restricted to his gun. In the film's most hilarious scene, David briefs the agents assigned to bring Pete in. "You are chasing your worst nightmare," he warns them. If a man two years shy of retirement age, armed with nothing deadlier than an overactive libido, is the most frightening thing the secret service can envisage then it may be time to downgrade the current security alert from "critical" to "pathetic".
It's not strictly an age thing. Douglas is 62 years old, almost the same age Clint Eastwood was when he made In the Line of Fire (1993), a film from which The Sentinel cribs shamelessly. But Eastwood was honest about the toll the years had taken on him; he understood how absurd it was to be leaping around chasing bad guys, and the film acknowledged that. Douglas, on the other hand, is in denial. His forte, unusually for an A-list actor, has always been playing the victim: he was menaced by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987), molested by Demi Moore in Disclosure (1994). He's never made a convincing rough-and-tumble hero. Maybe it's something at which he's always wanted to excel. Other men of advancing years take up watercolours or salsa dancing; Douglas seems to have leapt out of bed one morning and decided it was time to save the president and sleep with Kim Basinger. I'm very pleased for him. But do we all have to watch?
Pick of the week
Odd Man Out (PG)
dir: Carol Reed
James Mason is a runaway IRA gunman in this haunting 1947 thriller.
A Scanner Darkly (15)
dir: Richard Linklater
Paranoia, personality disorders, drug addiction: welcome to the future.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (18)
dir: Kirby Dick
Flawed but interesting documentary about US film censors.