Movie Review: S.W.A.T.

Line up. What’s the most honored, respected and professional unit of any major police force? S.W.A.T., or Special Weapons and Tactics. These guys are called in for the big jobs that the regular boys in blue can’t and shouldn’t do.

Line up. What’s the summer’s coolest action movie? Believe it or not, it’s S.W.A.T.

S.W.A.T. is the big screen update of the classic ’70s cop show produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg and created by Robert Hamner and Lee Stanley. Steve Forrest was S.W.A.T. leader Dan “Hondo” Harrelson, whose team included David “Deacon” Kay (Rod Perry) and Jim Street, played by the late, great Robert Urich. Fans of the old show will be happy to know that the 13 episodes of the show’s first season are now available on DVD, with more to come. Forrest and Perry both appear in cameos in the new film.

Clark Johnson, a veteran television actor and director, helms the new film like the cop show pro he is. Dialogue and action move fast, the likable characters are quickly defined and the cast gets to do its thing without being hindered by the hype or special effects that swallow so many summer movies before they even hit cinema screens.

From the top, S.W.A.T. cop Jim Street (Colin Farrell) and his partner Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner) lead the way into a bank full of hostages held by gun-wielding psychopaths with zero regard for anything but the money in the vaults. The film’s wicked sound design kicks in hard and fast by way of erupting gunfire, buzzing helicopters and angry demands by the thugs in control of the bank. And into this fray come Street and Gamble, who sees an opportunity to take out one of the robbers. Street can only watch helplessly as Gamble takes the shot; Gamble gets the robber but deliberately shoots through the shoulder of a hostage to do it.

“I don’t care what they say,” says a superior. “You guys were heroes out there.” Try telling that to the city, which is about to be sued for Gamble’s ill-conceived plan. It was too much “special weapons” and not enough “tactics,” and Street knows it. Kicked off the team indefinitely, Gamble leaves the force in anger. But Street, too dedicated to the job to ever bring himself to leave it, takes a major demotion to the gun cage, where he shines the boots and cleans the guns of his former S.W.A.T. comrades.

Months pass. Street loses his girlfriend (Ashley Scott from Birds of Prey) but never his nerve. When Sgt. Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) appears on the scene, Street’s patience and loyalty are about to pay off big time.

To the delight of his peers but the chagrin of his superiors, Hondo is given the task of selecting, training and molding a fresh new S.W.A.T. team to take on the worst scum and villainy Los Angeles has to offer. Early recruits T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles) and Michael Boxer (Brian Van Holt) are S.W.A.T. veterans with service records exemplary enough to please any skeptic. The rest of the team won’t be such an easy sell.

David “Deke” Kay (LL Cool J) takes it to the limit every day in L.A.’s worst neighborhoods, but struggles to feel like he’s making a difference. Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez) has more fire and grit than any man, but fights to be taken seriously in a profession dominated by men who see her as just another pretty face. But what Hondo wants, Hondo gets. And that includes a spot on the team for Jim Street, for whom the only boots he’ll now be polishing are the ones he’ll be wearing into combat.

Meanwhile, international fugitive Alex Montel (Oliver Martinez) has slipped into the country to settle a family score the old fashioned way. He’s got more than two dozen murders under his belt already, smuggling weapons and drugs with the same natural ease with which the rest of us breathe.

Montel’s luck runs out when he’s taken into custody after a routine traffic stop. And when the cops realize who he is, the feds can’t wait to sweep in and take him into custody. But Montel knows that there’s nothing so reliable as American greed. As he’s being transferred, he yells into the television cameras that he’ll give $100 million to whomever can set him free. And given an infamy that stretches into the darkest corners of L.A.’s nastiest criminals, every gang in town knows he’s good for it. Hondo, Street and the rest of the team find themselves at the mercy of a city full of monsters eager to take Montel up on his offer. Before it’s all over, they’ll face betrayal from every direction and even become suspects themselves.

One of Johnson’s biggest accomplishments in S.W.A.T. is the director’s ability to give us everything we need efficiently. The first half of the film deals with who this S.W.A.T. team is, how they train (including an awesome live simulation of a hostage crisis on an airplane) and how they live their private lives until the call comes in to do what they do. Johnson has directed episodes of The Shield, The Wire, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, La Femme Nikita and too many other shows to possibly mention here. He’s also a busy actor, and his years of experience in front of and behind the camera pay off well for the excellent cast assembled for this film.

Samuel L. Jackson is one of the best things that’s ever happened to Hollywood. I’ll sum up his performance here by quoting a character’s description of Hondo: “He’s old-school S.W.A.T., the gold standard of ass-kicking.” Amen. And just like Hondo is a natural leader here to a young team he believes in, it’s obvious that Jackson is giving every bit of himself to the young actors he’s surrounded by in S.W.A.T.

In a weight room scene, Hondo observes Street vigorously pumping iron and advises him to “save some” for the big mission coming up the next day. “I’ve got plenty,” Street says, and so does the talented young actor who plays him. Colin Farrell’s trademark charm translates into instantly believable chemistry with every single one of his co-stars. The role also allows him to play someone who’s basically a normal guy. This isn’t the out-of-his-league young CIA operative from The Recruit, the disgustingly insane killer Bullseye from Daredevil or the ambitious bureaucrat who tangled with Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Jim Street knows “you’re either S.W.A.T. or you’re not,” and in bringing his character to life Farrell makes the movie his own.

Having already performed like a champ in Girlfight, The Fast and the Furious and Resident Evil, feisty Michelle Rodriguez already knows what it takes to be a believable action star. As usual she’s all curves and attitude, but S.W.A.T. lets her take things a step further by making her character a mother, too. As a result she gets to show more emotion than usual, revealing a smile just as pretty as her snarl is menacing. LL Cool J is every bit as fun to watch as the longtime entertainer’s name suggests, with an easy charisma that makes for one of the film’s most enjoyable characters.

Oliver Martinez is both cool and calculating as Montel, making for a villain that’s quite easy to despise. But it’s Jeremy Renner, who played serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in a film last year, who deserves much praise for the film’s most dangerous performance. Bulked up and generating a creepy blend of magnetism and cold efficiency, Renner proves himself a new talent worth watching out for.

S.W.A.T. also gets the summer’s gold medal for action. Even when it’s big, it’s still believable. And even though it’s realistic, it’s always exciting. A helicopter crash on a busy city street and a wild scene involving a bridge and a Leer jet have to be seen to be believed. There are no obvious computer generated shots here (and possibly none), and no crazy Matrix camera angles. Johnson’s tight direction and the capable cast make sure that getting the job done isn’t always about guns and gadgets. It’s about guts, and S.W.A.T.‘s got plenty.