S.W.A.T. (2003)
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One of the fastest growing trends in the film industry is to take a popular television show from a few decades ago and turn it into a movie. With the success of "Charlie’s Angels" this movement is bound to continue. S.W.A.T., which stands for ‘special weapons and tactics’ was an above average television that began in 1975. Now, in this nostalgic time we live in the film works largely because it takes the basic premise of the television show and allows it the freedom to be its own work. Rather than force a concept that is over twenty five years old the writers and producers makes this film more fresh and contemporary than most such remakes. This is an action flick that understands that that audience requires a solid plot to ground them and hold their interest between the action sequences. Here, the plot is streamlined, just enough to hold things together but not one that demands a lot of attention. During a routine traffic stop a major drug kingpin Alex (Olivier Martinez) is taken into custody. He offers the sum of one hundred million dollars to anyone that can get him out of his incarceration. Only an elite S.W.A.T. team stands between this objective and the law. This team is headed up by Hondo (Samuel L. Jackson), a man that is sure of his finely honed skills, both in deployment and strategy. Other members of his team include Street (Colin Farrell, a police officer that recently wounded a hostage, a young Latina Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez) and the ultra cool member Deke (James Todd Smith aka LL Cool J). While several of the characters share the same names as their television counterparts it is there that the similarities end. I was a fan of that show back in the day and while the medium of TV at the time permitted only a superficial and somewhat standard portrayal of the characters, here each character is afford just enough back story to flesh it out and actually add to the story. While the story is above others of this genre it does suffer somewhat from falling into the typical cop show standard lines. There is the rouge cop, the hot head, the cop that is devoted to duty and of course a bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Although the film moves along nicely for the most part it is predicable, you know from seeing other such films what is about to happen. The only difference here is the action sequences are not so far over the top that the audience would need a more than healthy does of suspension of belief to enjoy the experience.

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the performances. Most of the actors have done better in past films of this sort. Jackson is usually dynamic and full of attitude. Here, he is too restrained for the role. Perhaps he should have brought a little more of Shaft into the role. Rodriguez is getting the reputation for the tough chick. While she is physically suited for such roles she has actual talent as an actress. It would be rewarding to see her in a role that would showcase this talent. Here, she is confined to the woman making it in a man’s field, having to be twice as good in order to be perceived as half as effective. This type of character is a bit worn out by now. I have to say that LL Cool J, billed here by his real name James Todd Smith is the breakout performer. It was not so much his character as it is Smith’s ability to play a role without relying on his rap roots. With all the rap singers trying to make it in the movies Smith is actually trying to create a career on acting talent. His use of his real name shows that he wants to be seen apart from his music career.

It is said that all actors want to direct and all directors want to act. This saying is proven by the director of this opus, Clark Johnson. He has over twenty years as an actor, one that has been in many different types of films and television shows. His move behind the camera was mostly on cop drama television shows like The Shield, West Wing, NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street. While his style here is good his television roots are showing. The film is paced more for a one hour TV show than a two hour film. Don’t get me wrong; there is amazing potential here, Johnson as a flair for combining action with exposition in a very concise manner, the up side of being used to a much shorter running time. He provides a look into the training of these highly specialized officers, something I haven’t seen since one of the Dirty Harry flicks. He also pokes fun at the genre. During one of the training scenes an officer asks why they don’t roll as they advance, he is told ‘This isn’t a John Woo film’. Its little touches like this that add a little self deprecating humor to the mix and helps in the pacing. Johnson has a knack for lighting a film; he pays attention to the details and appears to respect the intelligence of the audience. He frames the scenes well and gives the viewers a lot to consider in each frame.

The presentation of the DVD shows the quality we have come to expect from Columbia/TriStar. The Dolby 5.1 audio get the action across without blowing out an ear drum. Too many such films push the gain too much but here the sound field is balanced and set perfectly. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is for the most part well done. The color levels are saturated to just the right levels with crisp demarcations for the blacks. There was some notable edge enhancements that were not too annoying be there none the less. The extras where novel, there is a commentary track featuring the main cast and the director. Their banter displays a free for all approach that many find better than the usual technical jargon. A second commentary has the writers discussing the creation of the film. A nine minute featurettes that dissects the standard Hollywood shoot is entertaining as is the mini feature on the use of sound in the film. Rounding things out are some deleted scenes and a rather funny blooper reel. If you can get through the somewhat slow first half this film will provide an evening of enjoyment.

Posted 1/3/04

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