I feel a sense of déjà vu as I write this review. How many times have I written the words “movie version of an old TV show”? Although that very phrase speaks to the lack of originality that often plagues Hollywood, it is important to remember that periodically one squeaks by that is actually pretty good. And usually the ones that are the best are the ones made from less-than-beloved shows. After all, how can anyone play Jed Clampett more memorably than Buddy Ebsen? Or the Beaver more lovably than Jerry Mathers? On the other hand, how many of us actually remember who played Hondo on “S.W.A.T.”? You see what I’m getting at?
In the big screen S.W.A.T., Samuel L. Jackson plays Dan “Hondo” Harrelson, who is assigned to create a crack team of officers for an elite Special Weapons and Tactics unit. He scopes out potential candidates, eventually settling on Deacon Kaye (LL Cool J), Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriquez), Michael Boxer (Brian Van Holt), and T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles). All of them are skilled, and each possesses something else; they all have cop work in their blood.
The final member – and the most important for the plot’s purposes – is Jim Street (Colin Farrell). Street was once a talented S.W.A.T. member who was demoted after his partner Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner) engaged in subordination during a hostage situation. Street didn’t approve of his partner’s actions, but was guilty by association. The incident ripped their friendship apart, as Gamble blamed Street for not backing him up. Hondo’s offer to join the team represents Street’s chance to get back to the kind of job he loves – the kind that could bring back his depleted self-respect.
Once assembled, the group is assigned to transport a French arms dealer/drug lord named Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez) out of L.A. and into the hands of the Feds. When he sees TV news cameras rolling, Montel shouts out an offer of $100 million to anyone who can spring him from police custody. In a really clever action movie concept, L.A.’s notorious street gangs decide to take him up on the offer. This creates a tactical situation that the S.W.A.T. team must handle very carefully.
One thing is for certain: S.W.A.T. is a very well-cast movie. Jackson – one of the most naturally charismatic actors working today – makes a perfectly believable leader. Farrell, LL Cool J, and Rodriguez also have a lot of magnetism on screen; you can’t help but watch them. This is important to the film because the focus is as much on the members of the team as it is on their job duties. These versatile performers know how to flesh out their characters so as not to get lost in the action scenes.
I like the human element in the film. This is not one of those action flicks where the characters perform all kinds of near-impossible stunts that no one in their right mind would ever try in real life. Instead, we get a very strong sense that S.W.A.T. teams rely more on strategy and intelligence than on action. There are many scenes showing the characters planning their maneuvers, using their brains to beat the bad guys. That approach is ultimately more exciting because it feels realistic.
That said, the movie’s final 15 minutes stretch credibility just a bit. I won’t give anything away, but the finale involves some pyrotechnics and stuntwork that – while not egregiously overdone – seem ever-so-slightly out of sync with the rest of the picture. There are also two “surprise” plot twists that can easily be predicted. After all, you don’t think that Street’s old partner is just going to disappear from the movie, do you? (For the record, Jeremy Renner, who was so good in the indie drama Dahmer, is also very good here.)
I can live with those minor grievances because the rest of S.W.A.T. is very entertaining and – in this age of overblown action movies – refreshingly down to earth. I came away feeling like I had actually learned something about how S.W.A.T. teams really go about their jobs. I have increased respect for the work they do. The movie is an admiring salute to the men and women who protect and serve.
( out of four)
S.W.A.T. is rated PG-13 for violence, language and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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