review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 8 August 2003
big screen S.W.A.T. begins with a cops-and-robbers
conflagration designed to recall 1997's North Hollywood shootout.
The scene's very familiarity -- as "history" and, even
more emphatically, as assembly of actioner clichés (swooping
cameras, fast cuts, slow motion glass shattering) -- allows it a
certain shorthand in establishing the supremacy of S.W.A.T. Four
ski-masked bank robbers (not two, as in the 1997 incident) are
holding off an LAPD battalion with assault weapons that tear through
black-and-whites and all available windows.
the S.W.A.T. team. It hardly matters that they're mostly
unrecognizable in their black helmets and Kevlar, though star Colin
Ferrell, as Sergeant Jim Street, does stand out, even in his
uniform. As they make their way inside the bank, it's clear enough
these urban troopers are the film's designated fetish objects,
emblems of righteous machismo.
then, the glitch. One team member, Street's partner Gamble (Jeremy
Renner), is too gung-ho, disobeying orders and shooting a hostage
despite Street's dissuasive efforts. Worse, he mouths off to the
foolish and wholly disrespectable Captain Fuller (Larry Poindexter).
So: Gamble's kicked off S.W.A.T. for playing cowboy and set up for
the vengeance plot that will subsume the film's second half. At the
same time, Street's introduced as the conflicted (if not exactly
sensitive) hero, caught between fidelity and morality, ambition and
team spirit. Though he's busted down to manning the gun cage,
monitoring and maintaining weapons for the rest of the squad, Street
hangs in, waiting for his chance, that is, the moment when Hondo
(Samuel L. Jackson) comes looking to recruit a new and improved --
or at least more visibly "diverse" -- S.W.A.T. squad.
are, in effect, two audience appeal strategies at work here. Most
overtly, Clark Johnson's S.W.A.T. is a standard summer action
movie, borrowing character names and the most basic of plot premises
-- the elite team and fancy hardware framework -- from its '70s TV
show source, but pledged to deliver seasonal explosions, car chases,
explicitly, the film addresses (or at least admits) the lingering
whiteness of the genre. In 2003, Hondo's team, assigned to restore
S.W.A.T.'s image following the debacle of the hostage shooting and
subsequent lawsuit, is multicultural, including white guys Street,
T.J. (Josh Charles), and Boxer (Brian Van Holt), as well as tough
single mom Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez) and super-abbed family
man Deke (LL Cool J). The only potential team member Hondo rejects
is a scrub-faced vegetarian (Johnson's old Homicide: Life on the
Streets costar, Reed Diamond), deemed deficient because he eats
soy hotdogs and has not one complaint on his record.
is comprised of real "men" only, as well as the
exceptional Sanchez, introduced by way of the huge Mexican banger
she's beaten into submission. Their evolving cool camaraderie is
highlighted in a series of music video-style montages in which they
train on obstacle and weapons courses, rolling and shooting, dodging
and prowling, infiltrating buildings and stalking around corners, to
rousing (and occasionally cleverly paced) tracks by the Rolling
Stones, Linkin Park, and Apollo Four Forty. Though such interludes
take up more screen time than necessary to make the plot point
(evolving teamwork and interconnections), they also underline the
film's commitment to style as substance -- the team is learning to
shoot on beat.
isn't to say that such commitment is flawed, per se. It is to say
that S.W.A.T. knows what it is, namely, an expensive,
hyper-actionated, CD-selling, multi-raced and multi-buddied flick
with a catchy motto: "Sometimes, doing the right thing isn't
doing the right thing." No doubt, Street remains the central
guy, even revealing last-minute reserves of skills (owing to his
time as a Navy SEAL), but by film's end, his crucial comrades are
decidedly dark-skinned. Street gets to be aligned with Hondo, Deke,
and Sanchez because he's got an honorable hard-knocks background
and, importantly, because he's despised by that fussy and faithless
captain (so banal a device that he almost merits the venom heaped on
him by the team).
alignment of faux-underdogs (honestly, who would mistake LL Cool J
for an underdog?) is bolstered by their shared national identity. S.W.A.T.
doesn't wave literal flags, but it's hardly shy about its own
cheerleading tactics, specifically its use of a monstrous French
villain, Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez, who seduced Diane Lane in Unfaithful),
all shaggy hair, dark scowls, and sneery observations, to reinforce
the team's embodiment of traditional American "values."
The team members who are parents are good ones, and even single,
missing-his-girlfriend-who-leaves-him Street reveals exceptional
skills when it comes to playing with fourth-graders.
by contrast, is vile through and through, no shading -- the team
repeatedly calls him "that frog." An "international
fugitive" who sells drugs and weapons, he invites an especially
jingoistic hating. Monumentally narcissistic, cruel, and wealthy,
Alex is arrested following the brutal murder of his own uncle in
L.A., then, while under supposed super-punched up security, promises
$100 million to anyone who breaks him out of prison. That Alex uses
television cameras to make his proposal provides an intriguing
underpinning to his evil. Alluding most plainly to the
much-publicized multi-million dollar bounties placed on terrorists'
heads by the U.S. administration, the offer also makes two points:
1) a criminal (or maybe a corporation) with this kind of money has
global clout; and 2) moral lines are regularly crossed when it comes
to money, since, given the same resources, a criminal and a
government might make the same offer.
this film's formulaic moral economy, Alex's extraordinary wealth
makes him the people's enemy, just as dedication to hard work and
beating down scumbags make the S.W.A.T. team their representatives.
Hondo observes that S.W.A.T. is so good at what it does that even
the FBI and the CIA send their more robust agents to train with
them. The S.W.A.T. teamers exemplify what seems a set of ideal
contradictions -- militaristic but individualistic, cartoonish but
sort of relevant, elite but regular, dangerous but sensitive. And
so, they ride off, apparently knowing that doing the right thing
isn't always doing the right thing.
Samuel L. Jackson
LL Cool J
Brian Van Holt
PG-13 - Parents
Some material may
for children under 13.