August 8, 2003 -- “S.W.A.T.” is the best movie in the police genre since “Narc.” This genre generates a lot of garbage, most of it inferior, like the lackluster “Bad Boys 2” and “Showtime.” But “S.W.A.T.” is the happy exception to the rule, like “Heat,” “Speed,” and “Training Day.” No, this film is not quite as good as those films, but it is a solid, entertaining, well-crafted movie, even if it is loosely based on an old TV series.
Colin Farrell of “Phone Booth” stars as Jim Street, a member of an elite special weapons and tactical (SWAT) squad in Los Angeles. A new SWAT commander Sgt. Dan 'Hondo' Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson of “Changing Lanes”), picks Street to head up a new elite squad he is putting together. Other members of the squad include Chris Sanchez, (played by Michelle Rodriguez of “Blue Crush”), David 'Deke' Kay (LL Cool J of “Deliver Us From Eva”), T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles of “Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead”) Michael Boxer (Brian Van Holt of “Basic”). Naturally, Harrelson is getting static from his boss, who doesn't like him, Street, or Sanchez, either. This is a standard plot element in this kind of film.
Besides the usual cop movie formulas, the film also borrows from war movie conventions. SWAT units are a lot like combat units. They receive similar rigorous training. They wear similar uniforms and they use similar weapons. The training and the teamwork required for a successful mission can lead to a strong team identity. The welding of a diverse group of people into a single, well-trained unit is a staple of war films, particularly when the squad represents a cross-section of the U.S. population, as this SWAT team does. This particular formula works well in this film. You get the idea that this squad is greater than the sum of its parts. You also get the feeling that it is confident that it can meet any challenge and that it is very self-sufficient. The team seems to exude that “us against the world” attitude. The team is a kind of family.
The movie doesn't spend a lot of time on character development, but it has some very strong characters, including Street, Harrelson and Sanchez. Their relationship to each other and to their families makes them seem more human and vulnerable than the characters in most police dramas. The movie also has a strong villain, Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez of “Unfaithful”), an international drug lord. After Montel is arrested by police, he publicly offers $100 million to anyone who can free him from police custody. Dozens of criminals step forward to try to collect the big prize. The SWAT team must find a way to run the gauntlet and deliver their prisoner safely to a federal prison. The difficulties encountered during this task makes up the bulk of the action in the film. The action sequences are varied and inventive. I wouldn't say they are original, but they are a lot more interesting than the action sequences in most cop movies.
The stunt work, camera work, editing and effects are handled expertly. Production values are very high throughout the movie. Director Clark Johnson, who has little experience in feature films, does a very professional job keeping this film coherent and on track. The screenplay is also good. The screenplay avoids the worst offenses of the genre. For one thing, cops are treated with some respect in this film. They are not cowboys who make up the rules as they go along. They are portrayed as professionals who are proud to do their jobs the right way. Even stock characters, like the perpetually angry police commander, Capt. Thomas Fuller (Larry Poindexter), are more fully written than is the case in most such films. In this case, Fuller may be petty, and vengeful, but he's not stupid. This is a solid, well-constructed action film. It rates a B.
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