• S.W.A.T.

    Released by: Mill Creek Entertainment
    Released on: January 16, 2018
    Director: Clark Johnson
    Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, LL Cool J, Brian Van Holt, Jeremy Renner, Josh Charles, Olivier Martinez
    Year: 2003
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    The Movie:

    S.W.A.T. barely lasted two seasons on TV in the late 1970’s, and the movie version spent many years clawing its way out of the fiery depths of Development Hell before it hit theater screens at the tail end of the summer of 2003, where it was forced to duel with the likes of Freddy Vs. Jason and the Freaky Friday remake for box office supremacy. Its performance at the ticket booths was nothing to write home about, but the film has proven to have a strong and lasting shelf life in the nearly fifteen years since it first debuted to a collective “meh” from exhausted summer moviegoing audiences.

    Disobeying direct orders in ending a deadly hostage situation during a bank robbery, Los Angeles Police Department officers Jim Street (Colin Farrell) and Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner) are removed from the S.W.A.T. team and reassigned, but Gamble opts for quitting instead. Street refuses to follow his partner’s lead, resulting in the end of their friendship. Months later, Street is recruited by department legend Lieutenant Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) for an elite, diverse new S.W.A.T. team that also includes Deacon Kaye (LL Cool J), Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez), T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles), and Street’s ex-girlfriend’s brother Boxer (Brian Van Holt). The team is assembled and whipped into fighting shape just in time to take charge of escorting the international drug lord Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez) to a federal penitentiary.

    In full view of television cameras, Montel announces a $100 million reward for anyone who springs him from police custody while he’s in transit. The unexpected bounty brings out a small army of desperate criminals with guns blazing to make the task of Hondo’s team even more difficult than before. Among them is Street’s former partner Gamble, leading a heavily-armed force of his own in a last-ditch effort to extract Montel and claim his reward before S.W.A.T. gets him safely and securely behind bars for good.

    The feature directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Clark Johnson (Homicide: Life on the Street), S.W.A.T. earned decent critical notices and a $207 million international haul, but a big screen franchise wasn’t happening. A better reception on home video and cable television resulted in two direct-to-video sequels that involved neither Johnson nor anyone who worked in front of or behind the camera on the original feature. In a summer dominated by the likes of X2: X-Men United, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Bad Boys II, and Finding Nemo, Johnson’s film couldn’t help but look like an expensive, glorified pilot for a TV reboot of the 70’s series. But its emphasis on likable characters and practical action sequences that were thrilling and easy to follow has helped S.W.A.T. endure after all these years.

    Johnson set out to make a well-crafted cop thriller as grounded in reality as the demands of Hollywood would allow, and he pretty much succeeded on that front. The script by David Ayer and David McKenna (with story credit going to Jim McClain and Ron Mita) keeps things street-level and luxuriates in presenting a convincing depiction of the day-to-day activities of the police and the rigorous recruitment and training processes that go into building a strong S.W.A.T. We’re not exactly in documentary territory here, but Johnson adeptly keeps his film from wallowing in the clichés of the cop movie genre, though there are still some old narrative standards that can’t be avoided. The first half wisely spends its time introducing us to Hondo, Street, and the other members of the team while cutting back and forth between their training and bonding and the series of unfortunate (but hilarious) events that result in the arrest of the arrogant drug kingpin Montel, while the second brings the two plot threads together in a way that makes perfect sense and allows the rest of the story to progress organically.

    Now let’s get to the good stuff – the action! Fueled by a hard-driving score composed by Elliott Goldenthal that sounds like his soundtracks for Heat and Alien 3 were thrown into a blender along with a bunch of Joe Satriani guitar solos and a funk-a-rific cover of Barry DeVorzon’s original theme for the S.W.A.T. TV show, the gun fights, hand-to-hand brawls, car and foot chases, and multiple explosions help make the 117-minute running time fly like a bat out of Hell. Johnson was permitted the privilege (which seems rare these days) of shooting on location throughout Los Angeles, a creative decision that gives the excitement an iconic background to play out against and helps to set the movie apart from most big-ticket action movies that, despite having larger budgets than what Johnson had at his disposal, are forced to film mostly on isolated sets and studio backlots. There is no city on this planet like L.A., and Clark Johnson skillfully makes the sun-kissed metropolis and its unmistakable vibe another character in his pulpy thrill ride.

    The director’s background as an actor served him well in extracting believable performances from his cast, with Colin Farrell serving as a competent lead, Samuel L. Jackson playing his trademark commanding authority figure with the ease of a confident professional, and Olivier Martinez and Jeremy Renner suitably slimy and despicable as the movie’s heavies. I enjoyed Michelle Rodriguez and LL Cool J in their slighter, but still noteworthy, roles as younger L.A. cops who waste no time accepting Hondo’s invitation to join his S.W.A.T. team, while Josh Charles and Brian Van Holt offered some durable support of their own as the veteran cops the audience can never fully trust. The cast is rounded out by reliable turns from famed character actors Reg E. Cathey, Denis Arndt, Larry Poindexter, and Ken Davitian. Johnson and his former Homicide: Life on the Street co-star Reed Diamond appear in brief cameos as cops, as do future Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and original S.W.A.T. TV series stars Steve Forrest and Rod Perry.


    S.W.A.T. was first released on Blu-ray in 2006 during the format’s early days and the transfer, though hardly reference-quality, was superb for what limitations existed in high-definition at the time. The transfer on Mill Creek Entertainment’s re-release (they’re also releasing the complete original television series on DVD the same day) seems to utilize the same HD master without improving on it in any way, which is a real shame.

    Shot on Super 35 by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (Blade II), S.W.A.T. has been begging for the full-on 2K or 4K restoration treatment for years, but at least this transfer is presented in the film’s original 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio and is pleasingly free of dirt, grit, and print damage. Colors are strong, vibrant, and consistent from first frame to last. Darker scenes feature healthy visibility, but the overall sharpness is retained at a “slightly above DVD quality” level. All in all, this 1080p high-definition transfer is good, and it hardly shows its age, but it could have been infinitely better.

    The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplied exclusively for this release (the Sony Blu only had PCM and Dolby Digital options) is a real blast – often literally so – that provides an active and spacious presentation of the original sound mix with plenty of strength channeled into the gun fights and explosions while keeping the dialogue and soundtrack/score front and center in the mix. Distortion never becomes an issue. English subtitles have also been included.

    S.W.A.T.’s first Blu-ray release only featured a selection of deleted scenes that were first included on Sony’s 2003 Region 1 DVD edition, but Mill Creek instead preferred to port over a pair of audio commentary tracks from that same earlier release. The first features director Johnson and stars Jackson, Rodrigues, Renner, Charles, Van Holt, and LL Cool J (Colin Farrell obviously had better things to do), with Johnson recording his commentary separately from his actors, and the second assembled screenwriters David Ayer, David McKenna, Ron Mita, and Jim McClain.

    The first commentary is enjoyable but inconsistent in tonality, as Johnson spends his time talking about the many hurdles he had to clear in the making of his feature directorial debut, from tightening the script to working with a high-powered cast to staging the many action set-pieces, while the stars mostly watch the movie, joke around, and share the occasional fascinating tidbit of relevant information. I found the screenwriters’ commentary to be a more worthwhile use of my time, as the quartet of scribes have plenty to say above the writing process that went into transforming a 70’s TV cop show into a viable blockbuster movie franchise wannabe.

    That wraps it up for supplements. The 2003 DVD also featured a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes of varying quality and a short gag reel. I’m not saying their presence here is sorely missed, but they would have added some extra value to this Blu-ray. Besides, completists are bound to complain.

    The Final Word:

    It may be far – like, very far – from achieving the status of a masterpiece in the genre, but S.W.A.T. remains rock-solid entertainment that is also refreshingly not overblown or prone to fits of chaotic excess. Damn it all, for a longtime action movie fan like myself, this is celluloid comfort food I can put on without a single doubt whenever I’m in the mood for a rocking good time that doesn’t insult my intelligence. The new Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment is recommended for its decent HD transfer and audio commentaries if you can find it for a cheap price. Hopefully a future re-release will finally give us the definitive edition of this unfairly maligned, fun police thriller.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Jason C's Avatar
      Jason C -
      I enjoyed the hell out of SWAT back in 2003. Surprised I haven't revisited it yet.