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Oh, yeah, when that familiar horn line plays, it really takes you back. Except you don't know why the music is so familiar, and you're not sure exactly where you're going back to. Welcome to the world of S.W.A.T., a television remake so sure you don't know a thing about it that it can have its cast be fully aware of the actual original series, even though they all have the same names as the characters from T.V.

For those who don't remember it, it just doesn't matter. The film version is another high-octane explosion-filled police action movie, wrapped around the slimmest of recognizable franchises. In a lot of ways, you've seen it before, or at least in the case of the dialogue, you've heard it before.

S.W.A.T. proves frustratingly entertaining. This is one of the best directed and best acted action movies of the year. Unfortunately, it's just about the worst written.

The plot simmers for quite a while as it assembles the cast. After a rousing bank heist opening in which the audience gets to play spot the eventual traitor, Jim Street (Colin Farrell) gets knocked off the S.W.A.T. team for refusing to sell out his maverick partner. Despite this act of honor, the aptly but painfully obviously named Gamble (Jeremy Renner) leaves the L.A.P.D., refusing to believe that Street stood up for him.

However, when bad press plagues the department, the commissioner calls Lt. Dan "Hondo" Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) to form a crack S.W.A.T. team, and it's only a matter of time before the incredibly dedicated Street proves himself again. As Hondo puts it, "you're either S.W.A.T. or you're not," and it stays in your blood.

Director Clark Johnson takes his time introducing each member. Having cut his directing teeth on the great NBC series Homicide: Life On The Street (he also played Meldrick Lewis), Johnson knows something about pacing, and still making quiet moments gripping. Able to handle close drama and big action, this movie is incredibly lucky to have him. His skills generally overpower the hackneyed scenarios he's been given, and the resulting intensity helps erase that strange feeling you've seen this all before.

In fact, the script sometimes feels like a long set-up for a television series. When the page comes for the team to go into action, it's a sequence that looks easy to repeat week after week. Heck, there's even the superior officer just waiting for Hondo to screw everything up.

Like that's going to happen.

Each team member has a simple defining trait that takes the place of real characterization, and we only see those traits when the call to action comes, interrupting their lives. (What they all have in common, even the woman, is that they're incredibly incredibly macho. And yet neither Walter Hill nor John Milius have anything to do with this movie.)

There's McCabe (Josh Charles), the yuppie cop with a taste for the finer things in life. Boxer (Brian Van Holt) is the blue collar guy whose sister used to date Street. In her usual role of tough Latina chick, Michelle Sanchez at least offers up more smiles than she's usually allowed on film. L.L. Cool J pretty much plays himself, though they call him Deke.

And of course there's Street. Farrell coasts through the role, which is why they cast him in it. Mostly suppressing his brogue, he flashes his wounded puppy dog eyes when needed, though he knows his cocky charm will carry him a long way. Why do I even try to deconstruct this guy's acting? As one female friend put it to me, "but he's so dreeaaaaaamy." If you agree, you're going to love this movie, even though he's not challenged in the least.

Neither is Jackson, a great actor who has trouble playing kind sincerity. Luckily those moments of friendliness come few and far between; most of the time Jackson gets to look like his usual bad-ass self, but in a paternal way. So cool is he that the theme song remix pays homage to him by name. Coincidence? I think not.

In the role of the bad guy, Olivier Martinez actually underplays, making him all the more memorable. Thank heavens that it's fashionable to hate the French; it gives us a new/old villain for Hollywood to use comfortably. Martinez' Alex Montel controls a huge drug cartel, and though picked up for a minor traffic infraction, it soon becomes apparent to the police that just about every law enforcement agency in the world wants him.

Montel's solution, genuinely clever and plot driving, is to offer a hundred million to anyone who can spring him from prison. Despite the vague echoes of Dr. Evil and at least one John Carpenter film, this offer propels the movie into action and mercifully distracts us from the bad dialogue.

Once again, Johnson proves he can handle any speed, and the resulting action, even when improbable, moves cleanly and entertainingly. I didn't want to like it, but I couldn't help myself.

Aw, heck. Go see it. You'll catch a lot of rising and established talent at the top of their games, just not the screenwriter. Even then, you'll walk out with a lot of lines to mock, and sometimes that's worth its weight in gold among friends.


Derek McCaw

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