S.W.A.T. (2003)


The big screen S.W.A.T. begins with a cops-and-robbers conflagration designed to recall 1997’s North Hollywood shootout. The scene’s very familiarity — as “history” and, even more emphatically, as assembly of actioner 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 the S.W.A.T. team. It hardly matters that they’re mostly unrecognizable in their black helmets and Kevlar, though star Colin Ferrell, as Sergeant Jim Street, does stand out, even in his uniform. As they make their way inside the bank, it’s clear enough these urban troopers are the film’s designated fetish objects, emblems of righteous machismo.

And then, the glitch. 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.

There are, in effect, two audience appeal strategies at work here. Most overtly, Clark Johnson’s S.W.A.T. is 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.

Less explicitly, the film addresses (or at least admits) the lingering whiteness of the 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.

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, 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, hyper-actionated, cd-selling, multi-raced and multi-buddied flick with a catchy motto: “Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.” No doubt, 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 gets to be 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 banal a device that he almost merits the venom heaped on him by the team).

This alignment of faux-underdogs (honestly, 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 monstrous French villain, Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez, who seduced Diane Lane in Unfaithful), all shaggy hair, dark scowls, and sneery observations, to reinforce the team’s embodiment of traditional American “values.” 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 vile through and through, no shading — the team repeatedly 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. Alluding most plainly to the much-publicized multi-million dollar bounties placed on terrorists’ heads by the U.S. administration, the offer also 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.