Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 6, 2003
Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell. Directed by Clark Johnson. Written by David Ayer and David McKenna, based on Robert Hamnerís tv show. Rated PG-13.
Hollywood Homicides

A first-time filmmaker creates a splash of urban chaos in the engaging S.W.A.T.


Hollywood Homicides

A first-time filmmaker creates a splash of urban chaos in the engaging S.W.A.T.


ou may remember Clark Johnson as an actor, playing the affable, laid-back Det. Lewis on one of the greatest of all tv cop shows, Homicide: Life on the Street. After that show went off the air, he graduated to directing episodes of other distinguished tv dramas (The West Wing, NYPD Blue, The Shield, The Wire). Now, he makes his debut as a feature film director with S.W.A.T., and to his credit, this Hollywood action-thriller based on a cheesy 1970s tv show feels less like a dumb blockbuster and more like an indie cop film with a steroid-enhanced budget.

One reason for this is that Johnson, rooted in the acting part of show business, loves his actors and wants to give them stuff to chew on in the midst of the thrills. The plot begins with ďHondoĒ Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson), an exiled but legendary officer on the Los Angeles Police Departmentís Special Weapons And Tactics team returning home to head up a new unit, under the disapproving eye of a typical paper-pushing bureaucrat named Fuller (Larry Poindexter). The movieís not too clear on why the department needs to turn to Hondo and give him the authority to select troublemakers such as disgraced former S.W.A.T. team member Jim Street (Colin Farrell) for his team, but Johnsonís not interested in that. Heís much more concerned with the way the characters on the team mesh, which isnít surprising when you remember that Homicide was largely about the way its detectivesí ó and by extension, its actorsí ó individual tendencies coalesced into a single working environment. The movie gives us lots of male bonding and profane, testosterone-laced, politically incorrect wisecracking throughout its first half. Even when the jokes are substandard, Johnson hooks us with each cast memberís distinctive delivery of them ó the good-natured swagger of LL Cool J, the self-defensive snarl of Michelle Rodriguez, and the bratty smirk of Josh Charles. Jackson provides a needed presence at the head of this team, but Farrellís the one in the center of it, and he reacts to all these strong personalities around him by playing it cool and loose, tossing off his mildly anti-authoritarian barbs with an assured, dry wit that George Clooney would appreciate.

The air of solidarity among the team members also comes from Johnsonís sense of the African-American subculture within the LAPD, as everyone (the white and Latino characters included) chafes at the restrictions imposed by the white bosses, and Hondo finds a sympathetic black lieutenant (Reg E. Cathey) to commiserate with. Even the very Caucasian Fuller is aware enough to exploit the interdepartmental cultural clash, as he lays down the law to Hondo and rubs it in with a faux-ghetto, ďYou feeliní me?Ē

Johnson lavishes attention on his cast, but he doesnít ignore the thrills, either. This movie takes place in a fantasy version of L.A. where both cops and criminals are outfitted with enough weaponry to arm a small nation. Gun-blazing shootouts take place on the street on a regular basis, especially after the movieís Eurotrash villain (Olivier Martinez) is caught by police and promises $100 million of his international criminal empire to anyone who can bust him out of prison. Other Hollywood filmmakers turn grim and mechanical when they stage urban chaos. Johnson seems to genuinely relish the confusion, the screaming, the streets littered with broken glass and shell casings, the prospect of casualties on both sides. When a police helicopter crashes outside a crowded shopping mall, you get a sense that the director brought it down more than the bad guys did. This kind of zest is whatís missing from Bad Boys II, and the movie combines character and action much more successfully than Hollywood Homicide.

Itís the directorís skill that keeps this film from falling to the same level as those inferior cop movies, because itís certainly not the material. Too many secondary characters are strictly stick figures. Even before the team is betrayed by one of its own members, you can guess who itís going to be ó itís the one who looks unhappy all the time. The climactic fight in a trainyard is tediously predictable. The movie tends toward knuckleheadedness and casual homophobia in its celebration of S.W.A.T.ís masculine ideal ó Hondo disqualifies one cop (played by Johnsonís Homicide colleague Reed Diamond) from his team for being a vegetarian.

Still, while Johnson canít transcend the script, he manages to make it into good trashy fun. For all its gun battles and car chases, the movieís best action sequence is a mere training exercise in an airplane, where the S.W.A.T. guys fire paint balls at officers posing as terrorists. We know itís all bloodless, but the director evokes the same dread as if we were watching the real thing. Isnít that the essence of moviemaking right there? An inspired touch like this makes me want to call Clark Johnson a filmmaker to watch, but something tells me his next movie will an-nounce itself.

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