S.W.A.T.: fascist and politically correct?

S.W.A.T.: fascist and politically correct?

S.W.A.T.: fascist and politically correct?

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Aug. 8 2003 10:33 AM

S.T.I.N.K.S.

The high crimes of S.W.A.T.

A weak S.W.A.T. team
A weak S.W.A.T. team

Given that we live nowadays under constant threat of a terrorist siege, it's probably natural—it might even be therapeutic—to learn to love our culture's pervasive paramilitary rescue fantasies, even to wallow in them.

Well, maybe not, but if I was going to write a review of S.W.A.T. (Columbia) this week, I thought I'd try to get into the spirit of the thing. I even curled up with S.W.A.T. magazine the other day. It's not related to the film; it's just for SWAT guys and wannabe SWAT guys. It has a great ad for M-6 tactical laser illuminators with a picture of a pretty blonde in a nightgown sitting up in bed with her laser sight on some creep in the shadows—it's like, "Rape this, scumbag." The actual caption is, "Protect What's Yours"—which could either mean "your woman" or, in the unlikely event the reader is a female, "your maidenhead."

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How's the movie? Not boring. It's cut very fast so that it gets your adrenaline up. It has a lot of training sequences, like something you'd see if the NRA had its own music-video channel. I got excited early on because I was starting to think of Los Angeles (where the movie is set) in terms of sectors and modes of incursion, which is unusual for me. The cast is not what you'd expect based on the '70s TV show. It has Samuel L. Jackson as the avuncular fascist commander—the John Wayne part, if this were an old cavalry movie, except that Wayne liked his black guys cooking the beans. The Duke wouldn't have known what to make of the Latina woman on the team, Michelle Rodriguez (surly but sexually available), or the rapper LL Cool J. And the hero is that Irish party animal Colin Farrell, who isn't the first guy you'd to trust with plastic explosives. Farrell would be more at home in the botched but stirringly unfashionable Buffalo Soldiers, running some tank into an oil refinery and incinerating everything for several square miles.

This is not your father's SWAT team—it's not even your gay uncle's SWAT team. But its values are comparable. S.W.A.T. is a peculiar, hugely commercial mixture of red-meat action and rainbow coalition. This movie quite nakedly wants to appeal to male, female, urban, rural, right, and left. It makes jokes about the loss of civil liberties, but it's only the criminals who get holes blown in them, and the film has a villain that everyone can hate: the French. Yes, the bad guy is an irritating French drug dealer played by Olivier Martinez, whom you might remember as the irritating French book dealer that all the men in the audience wanted to kill in Unfaithful (2002). He's too French, he's too pretty, and he's screwing our women. That he's a terrible actor seems, in context, a misdemeanor.

S.W.A.T. takes a freaky turn at the halfway point. You're expecting this super-duper hostage thriller. But then the French guy gets captured, and he yells at the TV cameras that anyone who breaks him out gets a hundred million dollars. So, it turns into this crazed urban guerrilla picture, with all the human maggots coming out of the woodwork with rocket launchers and M-16s. Our guys (Farrell, Jackson, Rodriguez, J) have to fight them off in waves—and fight off some turncoats on their own side with an eye for the mother lode. It sounds like a video game, and it could be, except that it's poorly designed. The director, a TV guy named Clark Johnson, doesn't shoot action very well, which is sort of a handicap. Some of the bad guys—the baddest bad guys—get blown away, and you don't even realize they got blown away until a beat or two later. Plus, there aren't enough SWAT tactics on display—and I know this is true; I read S.W.A.T. magazine. The climax is two stunt guys in silhouette pounding each other with lead pipes while a freight train bears down on them.

I admit it: I was all revved up to have a whale of a fascist good time, and S.W.A.T. left me let down and pissed-off. I don't know what to do with all this manic energy. Oh, hold on, I still have S.W.A.T. magazine. That is one beautiful assault rifle. …

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.