Originally created 08/08/03

At the Movies: 'S.W.A.T.'



In one of the many elaborate training exercises in "S.W.A.T.," the team commander asks his recruits to lie on their bellies and aim their rifles at a row of playing cards mounted on a faraway hill. Whoever shoots accurately enough to form the best poker hand is the winner.

That's fitting, because the movie doesn't know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away or when to run.

Based on the '70s television series of the same name - which was on the air for all of a year and a half - "S.W.A.T." is a standard but entertaining blockbuster with a great (and great-looking) cast.

But it doesn't realize it should quit while it's ahead, and goes so far over the top during its excessive finale, it almost feels like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" - only with automatic weapon fire and exploding sport utility vehicles.

Police Sgt. Dan "Hondo" Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) and the renegade studs he's amassed for his Special Weapons and Tactics team apply their extensive skills while navigating Los Angeles traffic and snaking through the city's subway system. But it's when a small plane lands on a downtown bridge, and they prevent it from taking off again by slamming a limousine into it, that things get truly ridiculous.

Yes, yes. I know. It's a summer action movie - that's supposed to happen. And for the first 90 minutes or so, director Clark Johnson has a good thing going.

Johnson knows the gritty cop genre well. Besides playing Detective Meldrick Lewis on the TV drama "Homicide: Life on the Street," he's directed episodes of some of the best law enforcement series around right now, including "The Shield," "The Wire" and "NYPD Blue."

Here, he works from a script by David Ayer ("Training Day") and David McKenna ("American History X") that unfortunately contains some of the corny cop-speak those inspired TV shows lack. "This is why your (butt) is in a sling," a captain yells at an officer who's screwed up.

And yet, the movie chugs right along and is actually funny much of the time, especially when Hondo - who's revered as "old-school S.W.A.T." - selects a new group of trainees and puts them through a rigorous program.

He chooses Jim Street (Colin Farrell, in the role Robert Urich played on the TV show), a former S.W.A.T. member who was demoted after a bank robbery-hostage situation went bad, and Deacon "Deke" Hayes (LL Cool J), a beat cop who's tired of chasing thugs through the alleyways of South Central.

There's S.W.A.T. veteran T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles) and Michael Boxer (Brian Van Holt), whose cheesy mustache tells the world he takes his job as a police officer, and himself, entirely too seriously.

And there's Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez of "Girlfight," playing a tough chick, again), who's mistaken on paper for a man because her first name is Chris.

They're forced to put their training to use quickly when international mobster Alex Montel (yummy Olivier Martinez of "Unfaithful") tries to escape from police custody during a transport.

His offer on television of $100 million to anyone who can break him out - which is broadcast on seemingly every channel, including Nickelodeon and The Food Network - sends the streets of Los Angeles into complete chaos.

This plot point - which is the movie's whole point - also becomes its bombastic, protracted undoing. Until then, it's a sufficiently wild, mindless ride.

"S.W.A.T.," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for violence, language and sexual references. Running time: 117 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.