Tactical Errors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Super-talented Samuel L. Jackson, the hardest-working actor since Michael Caine and Gene Hackman in their take-the-money-and-run days, has as much of a right as anyone to indulge his yen for lucrative employment. But his straight shooter in S.W.A.T. is packing blanks. You get everything you need to know about him from his John Wayne-esque nickname, "Hondo." He's a confident, no-bull team commander who will home in on a black-sheep officer like Jim Street (Colin Farrell) and give him a second chance at elite service in S.W.A.T.

Street's saga frames the story: In an initial hostage minidrama that's also the movie's best sequence, he disobeys orders in order to back up a hothead partner. Hondo sees that this hungry and politically mistrusted man is also righteous to the core. Street reminds Hondo of himself.

S.W.A.T., like Mission: Impossible, is a network show's celluloid offshoot that shares little with its predecessor except its signature tune, which pipes up halfway through for a fake nostalgic charge. Unlike Tom Cruise's M:I extravaganzas - ambitiously movie-like in scale and elaborate action arias - S.W.A.T. is just another big-screen TV series, updated with contemporary series' mobile, quick-cutting techniques. It's not a picture, it's a pilot. And not even the actor-friendly alertness of the director, Clark Johnson - a veteran of TV cop favorites like Homicide (as actor and director), NYPD Blue, Law & Order: SVU and The Shield (as director) - can keep it from falling into auto-pilot.

Those who see the trailers may expect a tight story about an international crime magnate (Olivier Martinez) who offers a $100 million reward to anyone who can free him from the custody of the Los Angeles Police Department's S.W.A.T. unit. But it takes an hour to set that plot in motion. First the screenplay must depict Hondo's attempt to recruit a new squad that will burnish the LAPD's tarnished reputation and restore him to department favor.

Devoid of the imaginative action that reveals character or merely showcases personality, it's no Magnificent Seven. What's dismaying is that it's not even The Dirty Half-Dozen.

At least Hondo chooses Street, a crack shot, for good reasons. Hondo nixes another guy because he's a polite vegetarian and selects a gal named Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez) because she's not afraid to rough up a perp, and she'll tick off his boss.

The screenwriters have put so little energy or thought into the selection process that you might think James Todd Smith (aka LL Cool J) gets picked because Hondo likes his smile. Luckily, the audience likes his smile; Smith has enough natural warmth and charisma to fill in an underwritten character, which can't be said for most of the squad. A restrained Colin Farrell, it turns out, is close to a bright-eyed blank. The humorous, quizzical presence of Josh Charles, from TV's Sports Night, brings a scene or two some jazzy crosscurrents; then the script short-circuits him.

The training scenes lack momentum and payoff - Hondo's crew aces its big test mostly because of Street's familiarity with flight attendants. And once the international mobster sets off his $100 million dare, the action devolves into derivative chases and shoot-'em-ups - more clipped and modest versions of spectacular blowouts in The French Connection or Heat or Die Hard 2 or The Rock.

S.W.A.T. may be an acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics, but by the end of this routine melodrama, it might as well stand for Standard Whacking and Trashing.

Sun Score * 1/2

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