In an era of hyper-powered action spectacles, “S.W.A.T.” arrives looking stodgy, without exciting heroes or villains, or, especially, the kinetic cinema to make it memorable. Nonetheless, this widescreen adaptation of the mid-1970s TV series is smart to be flagrantly unfaithful to the short-lived show. Pic’s early August release date seems ideal to grab moviegoers fatigued by sequels. But coming in the wake of the physically astonishing “Bad Boys 2,” “S.W.A.T.” seems square, making it likely that B.O. firepower will be contained to the opening week and briefly beyond, with more flurries down the road in vid precincts.
In contrast to the borderline insanity of danger and extreme action arranged by Michael Bay in “Bad Boys 2,” tyro director Clark Johnson strives for realistic detail and action. Unfortunately, such adherence to technical purity proves to be a weakness for the movie.
Johnson, who has superbly parlayed his stint as a Baltimore cop in “Homicide: Life on the Streets” into a terrific small screen directing career, and has shown a knack for depicting finely drawn characters in high-pressure situations, is too often at the mercy of a generally hackneyed script.
Actions starts with a sequence clearly borrowed from a spectacularly militarized North Hollywood bank robbery in 1997, climaxing with the wounding of a hostage that’s blamed on S.W.A.T. partners Jim Street (Colin Farrell) and Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner). Told by Capt. Thomas Fuller (Larry Poindexter) that he can earn a second chance on S.W.A.T. by fingering the short-fused Gamble, Street complies, earning Gamble’s permanent enmity.Whether or not this choice troubles Street’s soul is a matter for a different movie, since he’s next seen working out on the beach with hopes of getting back into the fold while he temporarily does desk work. Street catches the eye of Sgt. Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson), who was transferred from some unexplained exile in LAPD’s Rampart division to head a fresh S.W.A.T. squad — much to the dismay of his former partner Fuller.
The mechanical ways in which Street’s desire for a comeback are shown to match Hondo’s — as well as the intro of each member of the squad — tends to make pic’s first hour drag. Throwing together young, brawny egos — including the unnaturally subdued James Todd Smith aka LL Cool J as Deke, and Michelle Rodriguez’s Chris Sanchez, the first to crack S.W.A.T.’s glass ceiling — would seem to offer fodder for incendiary, witty exchanges. It doesn’t.Genuine tension briefly surfaces during the squad’s final test before being sent to the streets, as the unit breaks the “course record” for freeing airline hostages in a mock crisis which Johnson cannily stages in real time.
But it isn’t until the entry of nefarious international bad guy Alex (“Le Loup Rouge”) Montel (Olivier Martinez) that “S.W.A.T.” breaks free of its episodic narrative for extended sequences that show Johnson to be a good if not yet inspired handler of contempo action. Nabbed by cops for document problems, Montel tries to escape with help from his henchmen. After his second capture, he offers a reward of $100 million to anyone who will help free him again.
Twist doesn’t prove as engrossing as might have been expected, and leads to some easily anticipated character betrayals played out in murky nighttime conditions worsened by what appeared to be a poorly timed color print provided at the review screening.
Jackson and Farrell remain consummate pros throughout, but clearly have no new ideas for playing cops. Perhaps because of her character’s novelty, Rodriguez comes off as more relaxed than in some of her previous, post-“Girlfight” work, and Renner (recently stunning in “Dahmer”) does his part to keep things as interesting as possible.
As the umpteenth cop thriller staged in L.A.’s streets, pic doesn’t create a captivating new angle as, for example, Michael Mann did in “Heat,” or to a lesser degree, Antwone Fuqua did in “Training Day.”
A talented production crew, including lenser Gabriel Beristain, editor Michael Tronick and composer Elliot Goldenthal, has done better work elsewhere. The vast song selection is more inspired, with well-chosen tracks from the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Apollo Four Forty and even an end-credit tune titled “Samuel Jackson.”