"S.W.A.T." has a split personality. It's invested a good deal of skill and energy in successfully providing the appearance of reality for the exploits of that elite L.A. police unit, and then it throws it all away on an exceptionally unbelievable plot.
The Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team (the initials stand for Special Weapons and Tactics) first hit the entertainment world's consciousness with a TV series in the mid-1970s. The new film pays tribute to that show with a couple of cameos and by recycling several of the original character names, but its biggest debt to television comes in another area.
That would be first-time theatrical feature director Clark Johnson, who has an extensive resume of TV cop show credits, including such class acts as "The Shield," "The Wire," "NYPD Blue," "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "Law and Order: Special Victim's Unit." Even before directing, Johnson worked as a performer on so many police shows that he at least half-seriously claims that he's played "so many cops in my career as an actor that I know more about cop work than some real cops do."
All this expertise is put to good use in "S.W.A.T.," at least initially. The film's first hour, though nothing if not familiar, is briskly made with crisp, professional skill, as Johnson proves adept both with action and directing a well-chosen cast. Colin Farrell stars as Jim Street, a SWAT operative with some of Steve McQueen's charisma, something the film takes pains to underline by placing a poster for McQueen's "Bullitt" in his spartan apartment.
The story begins with a SWAT operation at a bank that ends with a controversial decision by Street's partner, the aptly named Brian Gamble ("Dahmer's" Jeremy Renner). The post-op confrontation these two have in a police locker room is strong and believable, but instead of being the foretaste of interesting drama to come it turns out to be a stand-alone moment.
Street ends up languishing in the team's equipment room when Sgt. Hondo Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives on the scene. Hondo is described as being "old-school SWAT," which apparently means he truly believes in bromides like "we're a lifesaving, not a life-taking organization" and "you're either SWAT or you're not."
It's Hondo's job to put together a new five-person team that all by itself is, by a logic that is not immediately clear, going to change the face of law enforcement in L.A. and stem a torrent of anti-police press. After rejecting one candidate because (no joke) he is a vegetarian, Hondo quickly assembles a group that includes feisty femme Chris Sanchez ("Girl Fight's" Michelle Rodriguez), dedicated patrolman Deacon "Deke" Kaye (James Todd Smith, a.k.a. LL Cool J) and a pair of generic current SWAT members played by Brian Van Holt and Josh Charles. Is there room for the enigmatic Street? Do you even have to guess?
The training this new unit goes through may sound generic, but it turns out to be some of "S.W.A.T.'s" best footage, especially when a mock hostage situation on an airline is added to the mix.
The film starts to go off the tracks when Eurotrash evil-doer and major criminal Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez) appears on the scene and starts to translate his "you take my money, I take your life" motto into action. Martinez, who took Diane Lane's breath away in "Unfaithful," is a fine actor, but the plot mechanism he activates is so beyond preposterous, so not even remotely something that's within the realm of possibility, that it clashes with the film's previous efforts.
Dreamed up by Ron Mita and Jim McClain and written by David Ayer and David McKenna, this plot device is not going to be the high point of anyone's career. Though the film's second half has some good action moments, it never fulfills the promise of its earliest scenes. Some jobs are apparently too big, even for "S.W.A.T."
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, language and sexual references
Times guidelines: Considerable gunplay and dialogue rife with sexual bravado
Samuel L. Jackson ... Hondo Harrelson
Colin Farrell ... Jim Street
Michelle Rodriguez ... Chris Sanchez
James Todd Smith, a.k.a. LL Cool J ... Deacon "Deke" Kaye
Brian Van Holt ... Michael Boxer
Jeremy Renner ... Brian Gamble
Josh Charles ... T.J. McCabe
Olivier Martinez ... Alex Montel
An Original Film/Camelot Pictures/Chris Lee production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Clark Johnson. Producers Neal H. Moritz, Dan Halsted, Chris Lee. Executive producer Louis D'Esposito. Screenplay David Ayer and David McKenna from a story by Ron Mita and Jim McClain. Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. Editor Michael Tronick. Costumes Christopher Lawrence. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Mayne Berke. Art director Gershon Ginsburg. Set decorator Casey Hallenbeck. Running time 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.