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'S.W.A.T.' exploits, but doesn't explode

Friday, August 08, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Almost everything that happens in "S.W.A.T." will remind you of the hundreds of cop movies in which those things previously happened. Maybe that's appropriate for an action picture based on a short-lived 1970s television series.



RATING: PG-13 for violence, language and sexual references.

STARRING: Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, LL Cool J, Olivier Martinez.

DIRECTOR: Clark Johnson.


But considering how TV news helicopters, live video technology and morbid viewer interest have transformed high-speed car chases, hostage sieges and street riots into the spectator sports of the new millennium (the Iraq war notwithstanding), maybe life is imitating art -- or, given the popularity of reality programs, supplanting it.

In the name of verisimilitude, this surprisingly watchable movie tries to make it look as though you're viewing much of the action on a television screen. In some cases, you are -- security monitors, for example, or message boards. Other scenes look as though they were shot off a TV screen -- grainy, with lines running through the picture.

And, of course, the movie also provides TV news coverage of events in the film. After international crime lord Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez), being led in custody to the local jail, yells to the cameras that he'll give $100 million to anyone who effects his release, we see news shows across the world playing the clip over and over as anchors introduce it in various languages.

That draws the loonies out of their bins -- not only those who want to help Montel but those who now view him as a celebrity. They infinitely complicate the task of turning him over to federal authorities. (So does the screenplay, by David Ayer and David McKenna, but that's another story.)

If director Clark Johnson intended a subtle commentary on how TV affects both our view of crime and the way police enforce it, he probably should have pushed a little harder. Granted, we don't need any more action farces on the subject such as "Showtime" or "15 Minutes," or even anything so obvious (albeit thoughtful) as "Mad City." But a serious exploration of the theme, especially as subtext, would have given "S.W.A.T." its own voice.

I assume "S.W.A.T." was commissioned to do nothing more than exploit another familiar title that no one in the target audience actually remembers, to blow things up real good and to help promote this summer's video release of the original series.

The fact that it turns into something more can be attributed mostly to the chemistry among the characters (many of them named for their TV counterparts) and the talented cast: Samuel L. Jackson as squad chief Hondo Harrelson, Colin Farrell as redemption-seeking Jim Street, Michelle Rodriguez as trailblazing female S.W.A.T. officer Chris Sanchez, James Todd Smith (you know him as LL Cool J) as family man Deacon Kaye, Josh Charles as T.J. McCabe and Brian Van Holt as Michael Boxer.

Together and separately, they face such timeless (read hackneyed) situations as feuding partners who end up on opposite sides, a recalcitrant authority figure too concerned with polishing his own apple and the two cops hoping to give him his comeuppance, a veteran training younger recruits, gun battles in the streets, car chases and crashes, the pursuit of perps in the L.A. subway. (This last one has become a cliche through overuse just in the past few months.)

Johnson directs these scenes efficiently and connects the movie's often unrelated elements in a way that keeps the narrative flowing through both action scenes and character development (not that any of the characters develop into anything deeper than a stock type).

And while thousands of bullets died in the making of this picture, not that much stuff actually blows up. This is a good thing. Maybe Hollywood ran out of explosives during the production of "Bad Boys II."

Ron Weiskind can be reached at or 412-263-1581.

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