August, 2003, Thriller


This is the summer's first, (and hopefully only) fascist movie--yet one which, sadly, is already turning out to be one of its most financially successful.  S.W.A.T. is a thriller only in the broadest sense: it's more accurately described as a pseudo-recruiting film for Los Angeles police department, since it spares no effort in idolizing every aspect of that city's Special Forces function.

Colin Ferrell, appearing in his umpteenth movie of the year, plays Jim Street, a member of the S.W.A.T. team so anal-retentive that audiences will be forgiven if they detect in his persona a degree of latent gender confusion.  Street and reckless partner T. J. McCabe, (Josh Charles) foil a hostage-taking during a bank robbery with less than orthodox procedures, causing both of them to be bounced off the team. McCabe responds to this decision with an inappropriate casualness while Street sees it as a direct attack on his manliness, spending much of the rest of the film running in deep sand along the L.A. shoreline, frantically working on a body bag and lavishing unnatural attention on the department's firearms in a compulsive effort to regain his status as one of the city's police elite.

That's suddenly made possible by Hondo, (Samuel L. Jackson) a discredited SWAT team leader whose career as a badass has been rescued so he can form a five-personal squad to deal with the city's growing bad elements. In what has to be the most disappointing appearance by this extraordinary actor in recent memory, Jackson delivers an unending line of clichés about the police "brass", his fellow officers, and the task of responding to a growing number of violent crises which begin to erupt all over the city. (Since they turn out to be caused almost exclusively by members of various ethnic and racial minorities, the film's racist subtext is endlessly repeated in the action scenes which follow.)

After a series of curiously sequenced training exercises, the city's newest SWAT team is called into action when a foreign mobster named Alex Montel (played by Oliver Martinez, the hunky French love interest who dallied so impressively with Diane Ladd in last year's Unfaithful) brazenly announces to the media that he is prepared to pay $ 100 Million to anyone who can break him out of jail.  Not surprisingly, this calls forth an amazing array of the city's fauna, who attack Hondo and his heavily armed quintet in an attempt to free the prisoner and claim the reward. This anarchic premise does at least set up the opportunity for a rather dizzying array of confrontations, delivered with all the pyrotechnical professionalism audiences have come to expect of American summer movies.  Not surprisingly, the bad guys appear to be well on their way to their ill-gotten payoff until Jackson, Ferrell & Co. manage to save the day by annihilating a fair number of them, destroying enough of the city's infrastructure in the process to require floating of a major bond-issue.

In Jim Street, Ferrell has the opportunity of creating the kind of emotionally constipated but dogged professional Clint Eastwood so successfully inhabited in his Dirty Harry series; unfortunately, Ferrel tries for this characterization by over-using his eyes, sliding them from right to left with such frequency and intensity that he begins to resemble a ferret on amphetamines.  The other members of his team are caricatures of equal silliness; a hopelessly gender-confused Hispanic woman, (played by Michelle Rodriguez in a manner so aggressive she makes Demi Moore's G.I. Jane look positively limpid by comparison) L. L. Cool J. as the complaining but doggedly dependable African-American sidekick and Jeremy Renner as the sharp-shooting but morally weak middle-class white guy.  

Director Clark Johnson handles this exercise in machismo with a better sustained a sense of momentum than Harrison Ford's disastrous Hollywood Homicide earlier this summer, but that hardly qualifies SWAT as the kind of solid action flic that used to be made, for far less money, by competent directors like Donald Siegel and Robert Aldrich.  And the sloganeering built into the script provided to these otherwise capable thespians makes it impossible to regard any of this as anything other than a live-action cartoon.  

Most disconcerting of all however, is the underlying assumption that we should admire this cast of disturbingly violent characters who live to demonstrate their worth as human beings by engaging in such appallingly aggressive behavior.  The film's unstated thesis is this; in a world in which it is obviously impossible for average citizens to live together in a civil manner, governmentally sanctioned warriors representing will always be necessary to counteract the nihilistic violence of the bad elements in our society.  It's a lousy worldview, but one Siegel and Eastwood used to brilliant effect in the first installment of the Dirty Harry franchise. Here it becomes mindless mayhem, substituting chaos for character. And it's sure to do in excess of that $100 million at the box-office. Talk about the dumbing down of American culture…

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