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Colin Farrell and Brian Van Holt agree that whoever wins the tug-of-war gets to have LL Cool J on their team.

© 2003, Sony
All Rights Reserved

In the heart of Los Angeles (does crime happen anywhere else in movies?), the L.A.P.D. division of Special Weapons and Tactics has been ordered to escort international terrorist Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez, oozing French wickedness) to prison. Recently assembled by Lt. Dan "Hondo" Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson), the S.W.A.T. team includes intense Jim Street (Colin Farrell, smooth as always), family man Deke Kaye (LL Cool J), fierce Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez, acting through her eyelids again), tough guy Boxer (Brian Van Holt), and slimy T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles). Complications arise for the S.W.A.T. team when Montel announces to the world a 100 million dollar prize to whomever successfully frees him from police custody, and now the team is forced to fend off those competing for the reward while still trying to get Montel out of the city.

"S.W.A.T." (IMDb listing) is based on the obscure 1970's television show of the same name. Modernized by screenwriters David Ayer ("Training Day") and David McKenna ("American History X"), and directed by T.V. vet, Clark Johnson, "S.W.A.T." attempts to bring a little pragmatism to the summer mayhem movies it is in direct competition with. As a piece of high-tech motion picture filmmaking, "S.W.A.T." is a joyride; it is an unhinged action film set to a blistering pace early on, and hardly ever lets up. It's revitalizing to see a big movie like this try so hard to not let the pace lag, and Johnson runs through all of his directing tricks to keep his picture moving along. And, as opposed to other directors, he's not even doing it to cover plot gaps. Johnson makes a strong big screen debut, capturing the action with intensity and a modicum of restraint. There is often a flurry of disorder on the screen, but Johnson is a clear communicator, with "S.W.A.T." showing alarming competence even in the face of big, dumb studio politics; which come in the form of endless Dr. Pepper plugs, inappropriate Linkin Park and Jane's Addiction tunes on the soundtrack, and our friend the PG-13 rating, which unrealistically holds back the bloodshed.

Ayer and McKenna draw up a procedural thematic scheme for "S.W.A.T.," eschewing the customary cinematic process of just blazing through police methods and hoping nobody questions it ("Bad Boys II"). In its best light, "S.W.A.T." isn't exactly a L.A.P.D. handbook, but carries a tone of reverence to the rules of law enforcement without becoming dull. While the audience doesn't exactly get to see the paperwork aftermath, the action isn't entirely a cluster of firebombs and raving lunatics either. The script is tight and lean. Of course, the prevailing caricatures of the sassmouthed, cartoonishly bureaucratic captain, the hazing of the female member of the team ("Do they make Kevlar bras?" goes one pathetic line), and the generally transparent, puffed-out-chest brawn of each character and line of dialog are all a bit disappointing. "S.W.A.T." isn't an understated experience, but it certainly didn't need to be dumbed down for mass consumption. At times, this "S.W.A.T." resembles the 70's era of politics and characterizations rather than the 2003 world it is trying to recreate.

A nice touch is provided in the final stretch as Johnson has his cast use their S.W.A.T communication headgear as actual dialog mikes, allowing for an even greater depth to the experience. This helps the audience feel even more a part of the chase, as they now hear through the characters' earpieces. Subtle, but unique.

As breathlessly paced as this film is, Johnson occasionally can't keep his passion going. The central idea of L.A. citizens (unimaginatively, mostly Latino and African-American thugs) trying to free Alex for the reward money is not exploited nearly long enough. The set up alone could fill over an hour of action, with the S.W.A.T. team facing every last possible obstacle a civilian could conceive of. The scenes where the team is barraged by residential fire are the best of the film, feeding into the chaos of the moment and also opening up a terrific free-for-all atmosphere that is intoxicating to watch. Johnson stages these action set pieces beautifully, fulfilling the promise of teamwork set up in the film's opening hour. It's when Johnson starts to break away from the city streets, and takes the action to the easier-to-shoot-in sewers and rail yards, that "S.W.A.T." begins to falter. The switch to more intimate suspense takes the film's pulse down a bit too much, especially after the tsunami of action, which, up to this point, the film had established effortlessly. I also wasn't a fan of the mano-a-mano ending, which reeks of "Lethal Weapon," while also going against the practical tone the picture is trying to hide behind. Johnson gives into the action clichés too eagerly in the closing moments, which tosses a bucket of cold water on the otherwise unbelievably enjoyable ride this movie is overall.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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