The problem right away was that all S.W.A.T. does is show up for like the last two minutes of something, or kick ass and go home. So how do you make a whole movie out of that?
—Jim McClain, writers’ commentary track, S.W.A.T.
It’s not a PG-13 world they work in.
—Clark Johnson, director’s commentary track, S.W.A.T.
“The opening sequence in [S.W.A.T.] was based on the North Hollywood shootout,” says director Clark Johnson on his commentary track for Columbia’s DVD release. “It was a horrific moment in L.A. history… It was all choreographed, kind of orchestrated mayhem.” Indeed, he reports, working 50 set-ups for the first day’s shoot, “put the fear of God in that crew.”
And so, S.W.A.T. begins with a cops-and-robbers conflagration, such that the scene’s very familiarity—as “history” and, even more emphatically, as assembly of action clichés (swooping cameras, fast cuts, slow motion glass shattering)—allows it a certain shorthand in establishing the supremacy of S.W.A.T. Four ski-masked bank robbers (not two, as in the 1997 incident) are holding off an LAPD battalion with assault weapons that tear through black-and-whites and all available windows.
Enter S.W.A.T. (As the anonymous group lands on the bank’s rooftop, Rodriguez interjects the sort of ridiculous question that she likely heard so often when doing promotional interviews for the film: “So what were you guys thinking?” She answers for herself, equally sarcastically, “I’m really a cop, I’m really a cop.”) It hardly matters that they’re mostly unrecognizable in their black helmets and Kevlar, though star Colin Ferrell, as Sergeant Jim Street, stands out even in his uniform. As they make their way inside the bank, it’s clear these urban troopers are the film’s designated fetish objects, emblems of righteous machismo.
And then, the glitch that will drive the emotional underpinnings for all the gizmos. One team member, Street’s partner Gamble (Jeremy Renner), is too gung-ho, disobeying orders and shooting a hostage despite Street’s dissuasive efforts. Worse, he mouths off to the foolish and wholly disrespectable Captain Fuller (Larry Poindexter). So: Gamble’s kicked off S.W.A.T. for playing cowboy and set up for the vengeance plot that will subsume the film’s second half. At the same time, Street’s introduced as the conflicted (if not exactly sensitive) hero, caught between fidelity and morality, ambition and team spirit. Though he’s busted down to manning the gun cage, monitoring and maintaining weapons for the rest of the squad, Street hangs in, waiting for his chance, that is, the moment when Hondo (Samuel L. Jackson) comes looking to recruit a new and improved—or at least more visibly “diverse”—S.W.A.T. squad.
Columbia’s DVD for S.W.A.T. includes the usual sorts of extras, several making-of documentaries: “Anatomy of a Shootout,” explaining that opening scene; “S.W.A.T. - TV’s Original Super Cops,” a promotional spot for the series now on DVD; “The Making of S.W.A.T.,” featuring lots of renditions of the theme song and general observations on how terrific the concept is (Jackson: “It’s boys, noise, and guns, and we like doing that. I still enjoy it”; Johnson: “Top Gun meets High Noon”); “6th St. Bridge,” a short rationalizing the unlikely last movement, when the Lear jet lands on the bridge; “Sounds of S.W.A.T.,” concerning the terrific sound design; an uninteresting Gag Reel; eight Deleted Scenes; and an Easter Egg (click on Sam Jackson’s hat on the second Special Features screen) making good fun of the “S.W.A.T. Cast and Crew Golf Tournament.”
One audio commentary track features the actors, who introduce themselves—Charles, Jackson, Van Holt, Renner, and LL Cool J, with the girl at last announcing, “This is your mother on crack,” to which Jackson adds, “Better known as Michelle Rodriguez! Pow!”—and Clark Johnson, whose track is added, separate from the actors’ conversation. He likes to insist, this is “Not your basic summer action movie.” Still, it mostly is. And though he notes that “This movie has a lot of Top Gun elements to it. I’m not a right wing filmmaker, but I think that these guys’ story is compelling, and the way we tell the story of the S.W.A.T. team far outweighs any negative aspects that might be presented.” This would depend, of course, on what you consider “negative.”
More interesting than all of the above is the writers’ commentary, by Ron Mita and Jim McClain (who have “Story by” credits, and who had been on the project since 1996) and David Ayer (who also wrote Training Day, a point all the writers make repeatedly) and David McKenna, who together have “Screenplay” credits. All note the vagaries of the screenwriting business, specifically that there were eight writers on this project (that they had not met one another previous to making the commentary track), and that while “Only two of us get screenplay credit… everybody contributed. That’s the way the ball bounces. It’s a horrible situation, but it’s reality.” Throughout the track, each notes the lines left over from his draft, often with some glee and sometimes with wry humor (as in, “Who wrote ‘LL Cool J pulls up his shirt’?”).
Ayer says he first wrote a “hard R version,” which later writers took out language and situations to ensure the PG-13 summer movie rating. He explains his interest in violence on screen: “I was always fascinated by what does to a person to be ready to apply lethal force in any instant.” That said, he says that “You can write a scene but you never know how it’s gonna look when it’s filmed. Film is really a director’s medium.” (“Listen to us,” they mutter, laughing, “We’re an embittered clan.”)
Though the writers see that Sony (for whom movies are “about 8% of their total business”) only wants to “hit home runs,” and not mess around with characterization and nuance, still, they yearn for a retreat from blockbusters and corporate decision making. Ayer puts it this way: “There’s a problem inherent in the development process, because no script stands up to 30 readings. And when you have a bunch of people in the room, they have to say something and sound smart in front of their boss or else they’re not going to be in the next meeting.”
S.W.A.T. is clearly the result of such a process. And it deploys, in effect, two audience-appeal strategies. Most overtly, Johnson’s comments notwithstanding, it’s a standard summer action movie, borrowing character names and the most basic of plot premises—the elite team and fancy hardware framework—from its ‘70s tv show source, but pledged to deliver seasonal explosions, car chases, and firepower. Or, as Ayer terms it, it’s “the tried and true formula,” pitched to “teenage boys.”
Less explicitly, the film addresses (or at least admits) the lingering whiteness of its genre. In 2003, Hondo’s team, assigned to restore S.W.A.T.‘s image following the debacle of the hostage shooting and subsequent lawsuit, is multicultural, including white guys Street, T.J. (Josh Charles), and Boxer (Brian Van Holt), as well as tough single mom Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez) and super-abbed family man Deke (LL Cool J). The only potential team member Hondo rejects is a scrub-faced vegetarian (Johnson’s old Homicide: Life on the Streets costar, Reed Diamond), deemed deficient because he eats soy hotdogs and has not one complaint on his record. As writer David Ayer recalls concerning producer requests for scripts: comments, “It’s all about the stakes. Raise the stakes. My favorite development cliché is, ‘Can the hero earn his moment now?’ And ‘Can everybody on the team have a special skill?’ No, they all have the same skill: they’re all chefs.”
Alas, the film doesn’t follow up on this good idea. S.W.A.T. is comprised of real “men” only, as well as the exceptional Sanchez, introduced by way of the huge Mexican banger she’s beaten into submission. Their evolving cool camaraderie is highlighted in a series of music video-style montages in which they train on obstacle and weapons courses, rolling and shooting, dodging and prowling, infiltrating buildings and stalking around corners, to rousing (and occasionally cleverly paced) tracks by the Rolling Stones (according to Johnson, a very expensive get), Linkin Park, and Apollo Four Forty. Though such interludes take up more screen time than necessary to make the plot point (evolving teamwork and interconnections), they also underline the film’s commitment to style as substance—the team is learning to shoot on beat.
This isn’t to say that such commitment is flawed, per se. It is to say that S.W.A.T. knows what it is, namely, an expensive, cd-selling, multi-raced and multi-buddied flick with a catchy motto: “Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.” (The writers remark this on their commentary track, that the day is won by breaking the rules, implying as well the banality of the formulation.) Street remains the central guy, even revealing last-minute reserves of skills (owing to his time as a Navy SEAL), but by film’s end, his crucial comrades are decidedly dark-skinned. Street is aligned with Hondo, Deke, and Sanchez because he’s got an honorable hard-knocks background and, importantly, because he’s despised by that fussy and faithless captain (so trite a device that he merits the venom heaped on him by the team).
This alignment of faux-underdogs (who would mistake LL Cool J for an underdog?) is bolstered by their shared national identity. S.W.A.T. doesn’t wave literal flags, but it’s hardly shy about its own cheerleading tactics, specifically its use of a French villain, Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez), all shaggy hair, dark scowls, and sneery observations, to reinforce the team’s embodiment of traditional American “values” (as Johnson notes, “How funny is it that we had a French bad guy, right in the middle of Freedom Fries. Who knew?”). The team members who are parents are good ones, and even single, missing-his-girlfriend-who-leaves-him Street reveals exceptional skills when it comes to playing with fourth-graders.
Alex, by contrast, is reliably vile, no shading; the team calls him “that frog.” An “international fugitive” who sells drugs and weapons, he invites an especially jingoistic hating. Monumentally narcissistic, cruel, and wealthy, Alex is arrested following the brutal murder of his own uncle in L.A., then, while under supposed super-punched up security, promises $100 million to anyone who breaks him out of prison. That Alex uses television cameras to make his proposal provides an intriguing underpinning to his evil. The offer makes two points: 1) a criminal (or maybe a corporation) with this kind of money has global clout; and 2) moral lines are regularly crossed when it comes to money, since, given the same resources, a criminal and a government might make the same offer.
In this film’s formulaic moral economy, Alex’s extraordinary wealth makes him the people’s enemy, just as dedication to hard work and beating down scumbags make the S.W.A.T. team their representatives. Hondo observes that S.W.A.T. is so good at what it does that even the FBI and the CIA send their more robust agents to train with them. The S.W.A.T. teamers exemplify what seems a set of ideal contradictions—militaristic but individualistic, cartoonish but sort of relevant, elite but regular, dangerous but sensitive. And so, they ride off, knowing full well that doing the right thing isn’t always doing the right thing.
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