A sign of the times: S.W.A.T. opens with an aerial shot of the Hollywood sign before quickly descending into white-noise chaos. Picking up bad habits from only the worst attention deficit TV commercials and music videos, the prologue is an exhaustive shootout that combines hyperkinetic camcorder footage, blurred-out surveillance camera images and handheld film footage. Like the equally incomprehensible combat film Black Hawk Down, there’s no sense of strategy, narrative direction, or cinematic storytelling amid this rampant disarray. But that’s what makes S.W.A.T.’s opening shot so apt in a way. This is the state of Hollywood pictures nowadays—and S.W.A.T. just happens to be part of Hollywood’s worst summer in recent memory.
What’s more disappointing is that there’s the hint of a fascinating movie buried inside S.W.A.T. I’m not referring to the opening hour of postulating exposition, where L.A.P.D. bad-ass Hondo Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) puts together his elite team of cops (typecasting all around: LL Cool J as the requisite comic relief, Michelle Rodriguez as the tough Latina in uniform and Colin Farrell as the brooding naïf). By midpoint, sparks ignite when an arrested drug kingpin (a wonderfully petulant Olivier Martinez) makes an audacious offer to all street gangs, crime syndicates and rogue cops throughout the city of Los Angeles: “I will give $100 million to anyone who gets me out of here.” The montage that follows features gang after gang scratching their chin, thinking about the possibilities a $100 million payday could bring.
Think of a citywide version of John Carpenter’s B-movie gem Assault on Precinct 13 and you’ve just imagined a better movie than S.W.A.T. As soon as they imply an urban city about to fall into riot because of self-motivated greed, the narrative thread is dropped and it turns into a small potatoes chase movie between the good S.W.A.T. team and a singular, and easily dispensable, band of rogue agents who betray them. There’s no narrative kick, and that combined with the lack of basic cinematic storytelling skills (the film’s action scenes are reduced via a series of blip-blip commercial sound bites) make S.W.A.T. a real headache. Don’t settle for less, and rent Carpenter’s urban gang warfare pics Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York instead. There’s a greater thrill in hearing Carpenter’s antihero Snake Plissken say the still current line, “I don’t give a fuck about your war—or your president,” than anything in the whole of S.W.A.T.