Guarding Tess is a combination of Driving Miss Daisy and In the Line of Fire. In fact, it came out right in the middle of a slew of films focused on the president and/or the Secret Service: 1993’s Dave and In the Line of Fire, 1995’s The American President, 1996’s First Kid, and 1997’s Absolute Power. During the Clinton Administration, people were just really intrigued by the presidency, I guess.
A lot of those films are quite good, and 1994’s Guarding Tess definitely falls into that category. Let’s talk about what works in this film and why it is definitely worth a look this Christmas.
Why This Movie Works
This movie’s success hinges on its stars, Nicholas Cage and Shirley MacLaine. Tess Carlisle is the widow of a recently deceased president. She’s a stubborn woman full of contradictions. She hates the Secret Service because of their intrusion on her privacy, but she also loves their company because she doesn’t want to be alone. She loves her children, but she shuts them out of her life. And she loves being in charge, but she’ll obey when someone she loves gives her a command.
Cage’s Doug Chesnic has been in charge of Tess’ Secret Service detail for three years, and he can’t stand the sight of her anymore. He protected Tess’ husband when he was the president, and he served that man right up until the day he suffered a fatal heart attack. But now he hates being stuck in a podunk town in Ohio when he could be where the action is, protecting more high-profile government figures.
Every time he tries to leave Tess, he gets dragged back, kicking and screaming. The two have a very funny relationship. Despite their age difference, Tess acts like a petulant child and Doug acts like her overbearing father. She wants to do things her own way while he is strictly by the book. She challenges him at every turn, probing for weaknesses, and he refuses to budge.
After butting heads for so many years, they finally realize that they share something in common – a love for Tess’ husband. Once they figure that out, everything starts to change. They find themselves bonding and actually caring about each other’s personal lives. All of this leads to an extremely satisfying climax.
The movie has a nice fake-out where you think it’s going in one direction for a long time and then it slams on the brakes and veers off in a completely different direction that you don’t see coming. I like the path the film takes at the end because after focusing so much on Tess and Doug’s relationship, we get to see them face a crisis and come through it even closer than they were before.
Writer/director Hugh Wilson finds a fun way to insert a cameo into his movie. He plays the current U.S. president, but we never actually see him; we only hear his voice on the phone a couple of times. He calls Doug to berate him and manipulate him into taking care of Tess. At the end, we get a nice role reversal when Tess talks to the president on the phone and manipulates him into promising to take care of Doug, no matter what happens to her.
He has an authoritative voice, and I totally buy that he is the president, based purely on the way he talks to people. His penchant for colorful language is also oddly endearing.
By the Book
Guarding Tess clocks in at just 95 minutes, which feels like the perfect length for this film. It doesn’t wear out its welcome, and it has just enough time to make us really care about its characters so that by the end we care about what happens to them.
Hugh Wilson also wrote and directed the first Police Academy (wisely avoiding the rest of the films in that series) and the underrated 1999 comedy Blast from the Past. He’s right in his element with Guarding Tess, creating a surprisingly touching film with nice bits of comedy here and there.
This Christmas, get a cup of hot chocolate and a warm blanket, and prepare to be impressed by a subtle and charming Nicholas Cage performance. He really knew how to act back in the early ‘90s.
This is the Deja Reviewer wishing you a Merry Christmas.
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