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S.W.A.T (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 08 August 2003
“S.W.A.T.” is a by-the-book yet still exciting and enjoyable cop actioner that is so breezily cinematic and uncheesy that it comes as a bit of a surprise to recall that it is in fact based on a ‘70s TV series. About the only holdover camp factors still visible from that era are the names of one or two characters (even the considerable credible toughness of Samuel L. Jackson isn’t entirely enough to justify calling him “Hondo”) – otherwise, this is all straight-ahead stuff with the kind of physicality and strong structure that lets us take it seriously on its own terms.

S.W.A.T. partners Jim Street (Colin Farrell) and Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner) are part of a team that successfully shuts down a bank robbery in progress. Gamble, however, wings a hostage, and in the ensuing internal political scrimmage, he quits. Street opts to accept a demotion and hang in with the department, a decision that causes Gamble to sever their friendship. Several months later, legendary S.W.A.T. commander “Hondo” Harrelson (Jackson) is given the task of putting together his own handpicked unit. Street makes the cut. One of their assignments is to preside over the orderly transfer of international criminal Alex Martel (Olivier Martinez), who when TV cameras are aimed at him, takes the opportunity to offer $100 million to anybody who will free him from custody. Naturally, this makes the jobs of his escorts a whole lot tougher…

The script by David Ayer and David McKenna (from a story by Ron Mita & Jim McClain) shrewdly lets us get to know the characters in intense situations before letting all hell break loose. There’s also muscular, impressive direction from Clark Johnson, who as an actor is a veteran of TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and as a director learned his chops on a lot of (mostly police-oriented) episodics – he’s got a way with both the camera and the cast that serves the material very well.

Johnson combines film and video to give the proceedings a jagged, you-are-there feel, interspersing the characters’ experience with news coverage and a punchy yet coherent editing style. There are a lot of “I love L.A.” helicopter shots that serve to celebrate the city and set the scene. Bullets fly sonically in all directions, hitting with an impact that sometimes jars the theatre seats, and a copter crash sets off an aural wave that shakes the building like a low-level quake – the DVD release will certainly be a test of a good home system.

Musical choices tend toward bouncy rap and hip-hop, with especially effective use of a high-energy Spanish-language entry during a chase sequence (something that still creates the right mood, even though this works so well that it’s cropping up a lot this year). A couple of old standbys, like the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” also are employed to add further texture – the sequence is cut in such a way that we get the feeling somebody involved was just dying to incorporate this into a story somehow. Other selections include contributes by Thicke, El Gran Silencio, Genaro Codina, T.H. Guild, Band La Estrella, Linkin Park, Buppy, Jimmy Tha Joun, Sammy Davis Jr. (for a moment of really old-school gangster feel), Jane’s Addiction, 13, Apollo Four Forty, Long John Hunter, Paulina Rubio, John Gipson, Hot Action Cop and Barry DeVorzon’s old “S.W.A.T.” theme.

Jackson of course projects the inarguable sense that he could run an army, let alone a S.W.A.T. unit, better than anybody on the planet, so there’s no question about what this guy is doing in his job. Farrell conveys a lot of angst and determination with little dialogue, Michelle Rodriguez is very credible as the team’s lone female member and LL Cool J (also billed here as James Todd Smith), Brian Van Holt and Josh Charles are all fine as other members of the squad. Renner plays simmering righteous vindictiveness with all the right notes and Martinez as the cool, amused eye of the hurricane seems sophisticated and mean enough to live up to his character’s ruthless billing.

“S.W.A.T.” pretty much steers clear of any political controversy – good guys and bad guys are clear, the setpieces are inventive and both the storyline and the visuals sweep us along pretty effortlessly. The movie doesn’t provoke a lot of thought, but it’s thoroughly satisfying for what it is.

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