S.W.A.T." creator Robert Hamner could hardly have known what he was setting in motion when his short-lived cop show first aired on ABC in 1975.
Packed with lusty exchanges of automatic weapons fire and orgiastic car chases (not to mention that snazzy theme song), "S.W.A.T." was expressly designed to slake the male adolescent thirst for wanton mayhem and destruction. Now, with the release of the movie, the franchise assumes a whole new dimension: barometer of social progress.
Progress is the name of the game in the new "S.W.A.T." The guy in charge, Lt. Dan "Hondo" Harrelson — played in the TV series by rough-and-tumble redhead Steve Forrest — is now a bald-and-beautiful black man (Samuel L. Jackson). The team, once exclusively male, now includes a woman (Michelle Rodriguez from “Girlfight”). And Jim Street, the cool, strait-laced sharpshooter played by the late Robert Urich, is now a spikey malcontent (Colin Farrell) who does wind sprints until he barfs. Indeed, progress is grand.
Unfortunately, "S.W.A.T." isn't quite progressive enough. We never develop any actual feelings for these characters, and the movie — like the TV series — gets by solely as a nerve-ripping ride-along. But get by it does, in steadily engrossing fashion.
Farrell (“Phone Booth”) is the very portrait of generic self-assurity as Street, an up-and-comer in the LAPD's Special Weapons and Tactical division who gets banished to the weapons cage after a bungled hostage interdiction for which he unfairly took the rap. Enter Harrelson, a legendary old timer assigned the task of hand-selecting an elite new paramilitary unit from the cream of the LAPD crop. Harrelson's new protégés include Rampart foot soldier David "Deke" Kay, played by hip-hop smoothie LL Cool J, whose most dramatically taxing moment involves lifting his shirt to reveal his well-documented six-pack abs. Harrelson also picks Chris Sanchez (Rodriguez), a kick-boxing Latina crime prevention vixen, and a pair of somewhat interchangeable white guys, played by Brian Van Holt (“Confidence”) and Josh Charles (TV's “Sports Night”).
Lastly, there's Street himself, whom Harrelson instantly pegs as a quality product despite his tarnished reputation. Along with his fellow recruits, Street embarks on a rigorous training regimen that looks more or less the same as the stuff Farrell did as a CIA trainee in "The Recruit." One wonders how many more American law enforcement institutions the Irish-born Farrell will pretend to enlist in before we can actually send him out into the field. Afghanistan, maybe. Or Detroit.
Once the boot camp phase of "S.W.A.T." is finished, rookie director Clark Johnson launches into the meat of the story — a "Wages of Fear"-style thriller involving a bloodthirsty French gangster (Olivier Martinez from “Unfaithful”) who has publicly offered $100 million to any party that can spring him during his prison transfer from downtown L.A. to a federal facility in the desert. Naturally, Harrelson's crew is tagged with transfer duty. Just as naturally, every two-bit banger in the Los Angeles basin comes out of the woodwork to challenge them, and the gauntlet that follows is exciting, torridly paced and not entirely implausible. It sure beats the chaotic piffle that was "Bad Boys II."
Technically, "S.W.A.T." is something less than a marvel of military efficiency. It looks underlit, sounds undermiked and is edited in a happenstance way that saps much of the emotional immediacy from the scenes. Not that there's much to work with, anyway. Screenwriters David Ayer (“Training Day”) and David McKenna (“American History X”) futz around with a romantic subplot between Street and Sanchez, but never take it on a proper date. Late in the movie, Johnson seems to sense the absence of humanity, and makes the thinnest of attempts to illustrate Sanchez's anxieties about orphaning her child. It's not much more than telepathy, actually, an afterthought.
Inevitably, the filmmakers feel obligated to pay homage to the original show (yep, that's Forrest driving the van at the end). Strangely enough, "S.W.A.T." — the movie — seems to take place in a universe where "S.W.A.T." — the TV show — is a beloved staple of pop-culture kitsch. The characters hum the theme music and catch old episodes on the tube. Still, Harrelson and Street never stop to muse on the titanic improbability that they have the same names as their TV counterparts. Deep thinkers these "S.W.A.T." dudes aren't.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, LL Cool J
Playing: Opens Friday throughout the Valley
Rating: PG-13 (violence, profanity, sexual references)
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes